Three years ago, at a high school art show, my teacher used masking tape to cover the genitals of the nudes in one of my paintings. Other students had nude figures in their work, but mine were nude Madonnas, represented dancing, in youth, maturity, and old age, as a parallel with the threefold Goddess. My teacher told me that she had gotten complaints from several parents; not only had I represented a holy figure “naked and profane,” but she had body hair, sagging flesh, and wrinkles; she wasn’t even a “pure and classical nude.” It seemed contradictory to me that, in a religion characterized by the humanity and mortality of the main protagonist, the corporeality of aging human flesh could be seen as unacceptable. Christian imagery has always been harshly regulated; it’s run the gamut from the sincerely faith-driven to the blatantly politically oppressive, and all conventional critiques of the institution of the Church apply here. As with all regimes, art has always played a vital role in the propagation of all the most oppressive aspects of the misogynistic, imperialistic Christianity under which so many have suffered. This statement functions as a sort of disclaimer, in that the history of Christian imagery, in all of its complexities, is an ocean of study and thought unto itself, and this essay barely skims the surface of those murky and vibrant waters. As an artist and activist who is also a Christian, and not as a theologian, I’d like to discuss my problem with the insistence on a pristine Christian iconographic tradition.
In his painting Death of the Virgin, Michelangelo di Caravaggio, a 16th-17th century Italian artist, modeled the dead Madonna after the corpse of a pregnant prostitute who was infamously murdered by drowning and publicly pulled from the Tiber river. The church that commissioned it rejected the piece; the parish objected to the model and to the idea of a bloated cadaver as the holy Virgin. Official Church doctrine denied the Madonna any bodily humanity; according to those who would see real women condemned for corporeal functions, the Madonna, an “ideal” woman, did not suffer the pain of childbirth or the indignity of an actual bodily death. Taboos on the mortality of Mary have their roots largely in misogyny; however, Caravaggio was also criticized for giving his holy figures in other paintings characteristics of real life, such as dirty feet. Social insistence on a pristine Christian iconography, and on a refusal to embrace the Christianity of flesh and blood, has ostracized important expressions of Christian art up to the present day.
For example, Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” of 1987, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine and blood, caused knee-jerk public outrage. Few seemed to consider the beauty of the photograph and the possible commentary on the beauty of God’s grace through Christ manifested in the most primal of moments, present in all the messiness and pain of living. Likewise, Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin displays an intrinsically Christian compassion toward the murder victim; by modeling the Virgin on her, Caravaggio relates her suffering to that of the Madonna, and underscores the humanity of both.
As recently as last year, Timothy Schmalz’s sculpture of Jesus destitute and sleeping on a park bench, recognizable only by the stigmata (the marks of nails on his hands and feet), was rejected by several major American cathedrals (though it was eventually welcomed to the Vatican by Pope Francis). It seems that many Christians still resist the immediacy of Jesus’ message; we don’t want to remember the desperate, sticky, painful, primal moments when we experienced grace, and we don’t want to acknowledge that we belie our faith every time we fail to see Jesus in all other messy, struggling humans, including those we would rather forget, including ourselves.
I actually think that discovery of holiness in the profane is what has made Christianity such an enduring story. My faith is woven into my mortal flesh, into all my fears and desperations. When I paint, I try to express this grace. The most compelling expressions of God’s grace come from art of all disciplines, and regardless of how such art is received by mainline ideology, it’s how I come back, again and again, to the beating heart of my faith.
Katherine Cavanaugh studies painting at the Rhode Island School of Design; when she’s not doing that, she reads, sorts mail, and answers a domestic violence hotline. She’s currently abroad in Rome, Italy.
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