US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie

By Michael J. Farrell | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie Edited by Susan Perry (Orbis Books, 2009)

Early disciples never said how Jesus looked, so the image of Christ that leaps to mind does not derive from gospel or creed, pope or theologian. Artists gave us Jesus as we know him. Guessing, they gave us the fish and other symbols, then the Good Shepherd. Their guesses in time became a glory of earth.

In this tradition the National Catholic Reporter organized a competition to imagine Christ for the year 2000. Janet McKenzie won with Jesus of the People. It was controversial and sensational-in other words, people still cared. McKenzie, though, was just getting started. Her opus is doing for Christian iconography what Giotto or Rouault did in their day: dismantling the old assumptions. Her new book of art, the record of this work, is full of implications.

Jesus of the People is indigenous and dark. Christianity is finally a one-world church, and the artist has populated it with diverse nationalities and complexions. Neglected populations find their own savior and saints moved front and center.
And Christianity is no longer a man's world. McKenzie's women have stormed out of the shadows. One has climbed on a cross. Men are not banished, but women are at last at home here.

The ramifications of these 28 images are analyzed by a roster of 28 top female spiritual writers, Catholics and others, ebullient because women can never again be written out of their story. Elizabeth Johnson, Diana Hayes, Helen Prejean, Joyce Rupp, Ann Patchett, Wendy Beckett, Joan Chittister are here, to name a few.
"I see the mother of God in women of all races and ages," McKenzie sets the tone, "although rarely do they know what I am seeing, or how inspirational I find them." It's not abstract theology, then. "The stained-glass ceiling has been slow to crack," writes Mary E. Haddad. But it has cracked, and this book suggests you can't un-crack it.