Nov. 29, 2006
Dec. 1, 2006

Nov. 30, 2006


Instead of just reading about Pope Benedict XVI's current trip to Turkey, we'd all do well to read the pope's actual words as he spoke them. Click here for his remarks in meeting with the president of the Religious Affairs Directorate (and notice the hyperlinks in the text). And click here for his remarks to the diplomatic corps assigned to Turkey. Again, pay attention to the hyperlinks. And to follow the pope's visit through the eyes of the astute John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter, click here.

* * *


Artistic expressions of many kinds have been part of religious tradition almost forever.

Mary_2From statues to paintings to icons, from music to dance, artists have tried to offer their special visions of what they understand religion to mean.

Next month, PBS viewers in many cities, including Kansas City, will have an opportunity to watch a program that will explore the many ways the Virgin Mary has been depicted over the centuries. The show, called "Picturing Mary," will air at 10 p.m. on Christmas night on KCPT-TV in Kansas City.

The program is a joint production of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' "Catholic Communication Campaign" and PBS station WNET.

This will be a companion to the 2001 program, "The Face of Jesus in Art."

There is a "Picturing Mary" Web site, but so far it's just a single page of photos, which I've borrowed for an illustration today.

My talent when it comes to drawing and painting and such all went to someone else. But occasionally I am struck by works of art that speak to me in profound ways -- especially religious art. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I was wandering through the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and was really drawn to a painting of a suffering Christ, bleeding and red-eyed. I don't recall the artist, but it was hard not to be moved by the face.

So maybe seeing the kind of art that "Picturing Mary" offers will be a good way to wrap up a Christmas Day this year.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.



Old Jewish Humor: An devout American Jew, traveling thru the far East, searches out a synogogue in Beijing one Saturday morning. He walks into the sanctuary, and there are rows of Chinese men, in classic Chinese dress, the loose black slacks, the square-cut shirt worn outside the pants, the black pill-box hat with the tassle in back, draped in tallit (prayer shawl). It looks like a 1930s movie and sounds like synogogues around the world!

He pulls a yarmulke from his pocket, covers his head, removes his tallit from it's bag and covers his shoulders, and joins the service. It's mostly in Hebrew, so he's quite comfortable praying with the congregation.

At the end of the service, the rabbi comes over, introduces himself and in Hebrew, asks, "Are you Jewish?"

The American replies, "Yes, I am."

The Chinese rabbi pauses for a moment, looks at the American from head to toe, and responds, "I mean no disrespect, but it's funny. You don't at all look Jewish."

I often have that reaction to Christian religious art. Funny, they don't look Jewish!

Bill's comments today prompted my memory of the exhibit several years ago at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. One painting was by an African artist, Chris Ofili, with various materials including (brace yourselves) elephant dung worked into the canvas. It caused a huge and largely negative stir led by Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

What strikes me is that art tends to reflect the culture producing it.

Yet I'm always surprised to see a black Jesus or Mary portrayed. It's not what I'm expecting. I'm trained by experience to see romanesque complexion and features. A portrait or statue of Buddha would be shocking with Western european features.

I'm wondering what this says about us. Any comments?


"I'm wondering what this says about us. Any comments?"

What a great story about the Chinese rabbi!

Anytime a piece of art varies from the norm, it most probably telegraphs intent by the artist to get the viewer looking and thinking in new and different ways.

I say, "Good for the icons that have black features." Consider, viewer, what it means to always see a white face. Consider, viewer, the ramifications of Christ or Mary being black. Consider and face, viewer, your own prejudices."

Ensuing waves over Ofili's work, including threats by Giuliani to pull museum funding, were pretty silly. This was a gold-leafed Virgin, set on two piles of elephant dung ("Virgin" labeling one and "Mary" labeling the other), with one elephant dung breast and collaged cut-outs of female sexual organs surrounding Mary.

Ofili, himself, is a practicing Catholic and former altar boy. He explores his African roots in his work. The elephant dung is generally thought to symbolize Mother Africa and the sustenance of its nature and soil. This work of art is really about an artist trying to explore what happens when Western Christianity and its images comes to rest in the center of a culture with vastly different notions of sexuality and nature and living and, yes, women.

It will be interesting to witness what the Catholic bishops create as an homage to Mary. The Catholic Church's version of the perfect woman as, virginity, purity, piety, and humility, can be viewed as seriously stunting womens' power in the Western world.

Even the Eastern Orthodox icons that allow Mary to LOOK THE VIEWER IN THE EYES are more healthy.


"So maybe seeing the kind of art that "Picturing Mary" offers will be a good way to wrap up a Christmas Day this year."

Only if you are a Catholic Bishop from their ALL MALE BOY'S CLUB or are interested in the perfect woman viewed through the eyes of men who don't work with women in equitable or superior positions, don't sleep with women, and don't marry women.


I guess there is some historical question about whether or not the Jews at the time of Christ were white or black. I think they have just made a movie based on this open question.

Joe Barone

I see Mary as God's way of affirming that without human beings God's work will not be done on earth. For those who see Jesus as God, the real miracle should be, not that God came to earth, but that for it to happen, there had to be the involvement of a human being. To me, Mary is one of the strongst arguments for women priests and ministers.

Dolores Lear

About Catholic Bishops.
"through the eyes of men who don't work with women in equitable or superior position, don't sleep with women, and don't marry women".

This covers Asexual characterics, except in an Asexual Pure-bred Society women are Equal, and it is an entirely different Caretaker Lifestyle.

Heterosexual Body Birth made women unequal, and put under the authority of the male, and to be ruled by male. The result of Original Sin, in the Bible.

Females and males will not get their Equality back, without all the fighting and name calling, until we are 'regenerated' to Equal Pure-bred Physical Asexual Human Beings for both sexes.


Bill, in Letters today there are two comments about your column 11/25.

"Bible is clear on homosexuality"
- So what Bible is Bill Tammeus reading anyway?" In this weeks's column (11/25), he suggests the fallacy of those who "think the Bible and God condemn gayness", saying that after "careful study" he has found the Bible has "precious little to say about homosexual acts. - The 'Star' should accomodate Tammeus' liberal ramblings by publishing him under the category of Opinion rather than Faith."

"Churches not really welcoming" "Bill Tammeus' "Haggard should live his truth" (11/25, Faith) said a nuomber of things that desperately need to be said more often. - I hope many of our religious institutions will eventually heed Mr. Tammeus' perceptive and compassionate words."

Two good prospects for your Blog.

I have seen many pictures of Mary and Jesus in brown color skin also. So glad you bring up all these topics, in which I also have an interest.

Peace and Jesus' Asexual Agape Love.

Dolores Lear

I make comments on Common Ground Blog also.

Checking it out this morning, was two short sentences that says many things.

"Andy, All of you, stop telling me what to do! It's too hard for me to do the opposite!
Nov. 24, 2006. 11:09 AM.

That proves true for all.


Dolores Lear

Andy made the statement, I put a , instead of a .


Ron, I hate to delve into race and skin color, but here goes:

Look at a map of the Europe and Africa. Black Africans trace to sub-Sahara Africa (below the northern tier of countries bordering the Mediterranean.) The bulk of the population north of that are considered white. However, those closer to the Sahara and Mediterranean tend to have darker complexions than Scandanavians, for example.

Learn about skin color at

That said, does it really matter? Isn't assigning God a skin tone a case of anthropomorphism? I don't care myself (being Jewish) if you portray Jesus with blue eyes, but can you tell me how the Scandinavian sneaked into the wood pile?

So, Jews, like Arabs, are darker complexioned than Finns. We're both generally considered white, except by the KKK.


Thanks, Keith. Wow! Skin color is even mapped. And you mean that God and Jesus AREN'T Scandinavian? : )

I remembered and went looking for a couple of articles that I read on the subject of whether Jesus was black.

The first is a spoof. And let me type this again. SPOOF. SATIRE. The first time a friend e-mailed me an article from this site that was decidedly anti-woman, I took it seriously, e-mailed it attached with an indignant letter to.....MANY people, and nicely made a fool of myself. Some of you will probably be pleased with that info on the day that I have ranted about "Virgin art". A warning: Do not read if you are under 18 or a Baptist.

Here is the second article. This one is not a joke.
Thanks for the info that there's a "Bill Basher" in Unfettered Letters, Dolores. I hope everyone writes letters to the editor when Bill writes a column that is particularly enlightened. If you are writing to criticize, let me give you the proper e-mail address: [email protected]

And speaking of Bill and his enlightenment......this is an unsolicited commercial to buy and give and read his book, "A Gift of Meaning". It is superb and I've only begun. I have to moderate my reading because it makes me cry.

Mary Behr

"Ofili, himself, is a practicing Catholic and former altar boy. He explores his African roots in his work. The elephant dung is generally thought to symbolize Mother Africa and the sustenance of its nature and soil. This work of art is really about an artist trying to explore what happens when Western Christianity and its images comes to rest in the center of a culture with vastly different notions of sexuality and nature and living and, yes, women."

Interesting,Patricia. I hadn't heard any of that in the controversy at the time. Do you think maybe he might have expected rejection, revulsion and misunderstanding of his "purpose" when his art was plunked down in a vastly different culture without any indication of what his purpose was? It sure looked like disrespect. Seems to me that a description of African ways of viewing these things along with the art would have been helpful in communication if not simply shock value.

By the way "he used to be an altar boy" rattles my cage. No offense,Patricia, I'm sure you meant it merely descriptively--"practicing Catholic" would be enough. The neighborhood used to throw that comment out (I was ten at the time) when clucking over my father's alcoholism and lack of faith, with a sneering "And' at the start of the sentence as if being an Altar Boy was like an innoculation against disease. (But how could you know my mindset any more than Rudy et al could know the artist's "African" mind set? :)

When I see an altar boy these days, I say a small prayer that he receives the grace to meet his life challenges whatever they may be. Altar girls, too. I think they are called servers now. :)
Good thing I sent you a positive e mail today Particia, or you might think I was displeased with you. I appreciate your passion.


Chris Ofili is British of Nigerian descent, and won the (British) Turner Prize a year before the Brooklyn exhibit. (The Turner Prize is the UK's biggest and most prestigious prize for contemporary artists, and attracts a great deal of interest in the arts community around the world. There is no equivalent I can think of in American arts. We may not know much about art, but we know what we like and know perversion when we see it.)

Ofili may not even have owned or controlled the painting by that time. He sells them to make a living. But you're right about plucking art down in a strange foreign culture, Mary. I can't think of anything more strange or foreign to a black man from Manchester, England than Brooklyn during the reign of Rudy Guiliani.


"I hadn't heard any of that in the controversy at the time. Do you think maybe he might have expected rejection, revulsion and misunderstanding of his "purpose" when his art was plunked down in a vastly different culture without any indication of what his purpose was?"

I honestly don't know if my own personal interpretation of Ofili's work is anyone else's or was presented at the time, Mary. It would certainly be presumptuous to assume I know Ofili's intent. I may have read it at the time but don't remember it "from the artist's mouth". I viewed the work in NYC and took away my own impressions and interpretations.

This is one thing that I love about art. Just as the individual can reflect her own individuality in the art she creates, so can the viewer reflect her own individuality in her interpretations. There is no right or wrong concerning what we, the viewers, see or feel in the art.

I very much understand, as I've said to Betsy many times in reference to the work of a Catholic philosopher, that in not being a Catholic myself, it is clear that I'm probably missing layers of meaning. There's no doubt that is true as regards Ofili's work. It's also a valid point that, not coming from a religious tradition that included iconic imagery or sculpture, I view that art totally differently than someone who does. It is the difference in a reverent attitude versus a secular one.

As for mentioning Ofili's altar boy past, it wasn't intended to be held up as a character reference. It was intended to note that he produced his art from the standpoint of someone who had to know a lot about Catholicism and its traditions. He wasn't at all a "Nigerian pagan off the street". That knowledge seems key to viewing the work.

There's another way to look at the work, incidentally. If elephant dung is really assigned a negative, dirty African connotation, could this not be a comment on how Africa has soiled and corrupted the beauty and purity of Catholicism? Perhaps the work would create as much of an uproar in Nigeria, for completely different reasons.

Whatever interpretation one embraces, what ensues is a conversation on Africa and Catholicism and the nature of art that can be illuminating, if we allow it to be.


There are two perceptions here: artist and viewer. The viewer has no control over the artist's intent or methods. The artist has no control over the viewer's preconceptions.

I'd also note that elephant dung does NOT have a negative connotation in either African lore or in Ofili's usage, which he describes as a symbol of return to the earth. (It's not "splattered" in his work, either.) Perhaps the negative connotation is a European preconception brought to, not found in, the painting of a Black Madonna?

Various well-known depictions of Mary have been tied to a number of women as models, known to the artists. But we seem to readily accept them as religious portraits, presuming the intent of the artist. Is an Italian- or Rubenesque-looking Mary acceptable, as long as she doesn't look TOO different from our cultural norm?

A writer at the court of Charlemagne attacked the adoration of imagery by pointing to the problem of accurately identifying a statue of a beautiful woman with a child on her lap. Was it the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus? Venus and Cupid? Alcmeme and Hercules? Should one venerate the statue as a sacred Christian image or destroy it as a hated idol?

Have you ever seen Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin? It was rejected initially for its lack of decorum; rumor had it that the figure of Mary had been based on a whore who may also have been the artist's lover.

Ever seen the portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe? Now THAT is disrespectful. Mary looks like...oh, my gosh...a native Mexican (Indian!)!!! Look at the skin tone, the facial features. Blasphemy? Or a depiction by an artist deeply moved in his faith?


I think you're right, Keith, about the fact that the elephant dung is not meant to be dirty or negative. It is too much a tradition for the pachyderm to be treated as sacred in African and Indian cultures.

We're discussing really quite a lovely painting that's not done justice by the little web pics. It glows and is celebratory. The dung is a small detail and is integrated so that if you didn't know what it wouldn't.

To me, the one thing that Ofili accomplishes is to COMPLETELY appropriate Western religious imagery tradition and transform it into African. That's an important thing to be able to do.

I do think that you're getting more to the central core of the issue when your discussion turns to the adoration of imagery or iconic value. And what that means in "translation". You and I are discussing religious art from an intellectual and emotionally detached viewpoint. Giuliani and Mary are not. That has to be acknowledged and respected as something that I "don't get". (Although I do have my moments in the presence of certain art, churches, etc; it's not the same)And now I am going to mull over - probably for the day - what exactly I do get from my very international nativity collection, my old Mexican mission painting of Jesus, my Buddhist altar, my lovely Christmas menorah, the crosses grotto in the yard. Hmmmm.

What about traditional Jewish imagery? I know nothing about it, except perhaps that of Chagall, which I'm quite fond of. Hardly iconic.

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