Divine Beauty Installation Virtual Tour
Though we don’t generally think about it, thirteenth-century religious art actually reflects medieval European perceptions of events that occurred in the ancient Middle East. In the Divine Beauty project I filter sacred iconography through the secular lens of today’s societal perceptions by placing found commercial fashion imagery (from magazines and other sources) in the context of painted religious narratives, producing a clash of ideas that throw both sources into question.
Like many Western New Yorkers, I was raised Catholic. I attended a Catholic elementary school, went to church every day. While the indoctrination didn’t last beyond childhood, it did instill a lifelong affinity for the visual traditions of sacred art. But, as the recent economic meltdown has made apparent, conspicuous global consumption has replaced western religion today as the favored path to personal fulfillment. Fashion models serve as the new icons for the church of materialism, gazing intensely from billboards and magazines. Like traditional depictions of saints and religious figures, they often evoke rapture, anguish, and implied narratives. I’m intrigued by the fake heroic ethos, smarmy lighting, and barely hidden sexual agendas (that tug at both male and female desires) of these ads as they promote devotion to cologne, jeans, and underwear. My work retains many conventions of traditional religious art, balancing historical painting against tossed-off illustration. Homoerotic subtexts parallel those in many historical religious works. I also reference pop culture, mass production (as in the “quick and dirty” stenciling in many of the backgrounds), and our current “crusade” for oil in the middle-east. The frames (made from commercial carpenter moldings, or gold spray-painted thrift shop frames) mimic 11th to17th century styles.
The Adoration of the Virgin: Wearing Vera Wang
Decoding the iconography
This painting was commissioned by NY City art collector, Vince Paparo in the style of my Divine Beauty Series. Mr. Paparo requested the specific saints and holy people used in the painting.
The work is divided into three sections by arches in the upper part of the frame. Three is of course a very important number in Catholicism. The corners of the frame represent products associated with fashion, earthly desires and temptations. There are two circular images above the main painting. These are intended to be ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations, but I’ll suggest some elements to consider. The image on the right is a winged entity in the heavens that looks down on the earth. We call this a satellite. The image on the left is of four Blackhawk helicopters descending from the sky. In some of my earlier paintings I used Blackhawks to represent angels, which to US ground troops they must surely seem. It’s significant that there are four. Are they the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael? Or are they the four horsemen of the apocalypse? Or just four helicopters aiding America’s crusade for Middle-Eastern oil?
All figures in the main panel of the painting are adopted from fashion magazine ads or other fashion sources. Linier perspective is used as it often was in Renaissance paintings to direct attention to the main focal point—Mary. Nuns and priests in the painting are largely dressed in clothes that are faintly reminiscent of religious garments. Saints have gold halos. The strip malls in the background are in keeping with the theme of fashion and marketing. The city in the distance is based on Buffalo. The landscape is based on medieval and Renaissance paintings.
1. Central Figure – As requested, Mary is loosely based on Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is enveloped in a full body halo similar to the one on the original Lady of Guadalupe “miraculous” painting, and reminiscent of the “woman clothed with the sun” of Revelations 12:1. The colors of her clothing are consistent with Our Lady of Guadalupe, each color having symbolic significance in Mexico.
The flowers on her dress are Castillian roses, the flowers Juan Diego is said to have brought back as a sign that he had seen the virgin. The rest of the symbols are updated versions of the original. They include: The aureole or luminous light surrounding the Lady. The light is also a sign of the power of God who has sanctified and blessed the one who appears. The rays of the sun would also be recognized by the native people of Mexico as a symbol of their highest god, Huitzilopochtli. Thus, the lady comes forth hiding but not extinguishing the power of the sun. She is now going to announce the God who is greater than their sun god. The Lady is standing upon the moon. Again, the symbolism is that of the woman of Rev. 12:1 who has the “moon under her feet.” The moon for the Meso-Americans was the god of the night. By standing on the moon, she shows that she is more powerful than the god of darkness. However, in Christian iconography the crescent moon under the Madonna’s feet is usually a symbol of her perpetual virginity, and sometimes it can refer to her Immaculate Conception or Assumption.
Our lady is looking down and to the side with humility and compassion as she does in the original. This was a sign to the native people that she was not a god since in their iconography the gods stare straight ahead with their eyes wide open.
The angel below is holding the hem of her dress as in the original, but here the angel is a man, and he might just be taking a peek at the perpetually virginal source of his god and savior. The mantle of the Lady is blue-green. To the native Mexican people, this was the color of the gods and of royalty.
The stars on the Lady’s mantle are represented here by gold dots, but they serve the same purpose, which is to show that the Lady comes from heaven. The color of her dress is rose. Some have interpreted this as the color of dawn symbolizing the beginning of a new era.
2. Sister Cabrini also called Mother Cabrini, was the first citizen of the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. She worked in America to help Italian immigrants who were flooding to our nation in that era, mostly in great poverty. My Cabrini can be identified by the symbol for the Saint Cabrini Home tattooed on her thigh. Look close and you’ll also see that she is wearing a black veil, like a nun’s habit.
3. Elizabeth Seton was the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. She established the first Catholic school in the nation, at Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she founded the first American congregation of Religious Sisters, the Sisters of Charity. She is seen here wearing a hat that is a more fashionable variation of the actual head covering the real Seton wore. She was the a member of the “cream” of NY society, so she is portrayed as being chic and refined, and of course sitting. Like most of the nuns, she sports a fashionable cross.
4. The Venerable Pierre Toussaint and his wife performed many charitable works, opening their home as an orphanage, employment bureau, and a refuge for travelers. He contributed funds and helped raise money to build Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street. Toussaint was first a slave, then a hairdresser. Here he is depicted with a stylin’ hair-do, with the comb (a hairdresser’s tool) sticking out. He also wears a gold chain as a reminder of his slave beginnings.
5. Dorothy Day – I think of Dorothy Day as a tough woman, one of the 99% of her day, and so she is portrayed that way. She was involved with the Bohemian whirl of 1917 Greenwich Village, so I picked a model that was wearing chic torn pants and lots of straps and so on. She was an anarchist, so she has the anarchy “A” tattooed on her arm. Her pants sport the American Socialist Party symbol from her time.
6. Blessed Tekakwitha is wearing fashionable Native American garb, with the ecology symbol on her skirt. She is the patroness of the environment and ecology. Being an Indian, she is associated on the painting with other saints that had something to do with Native Americans. Unfortunately, usually not happy dealings.
7. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a priest who is maybe my favorite of the subjects on the painting. He was an archeologist and church reformer. Here he is fashionably attired in a rugged work boot and hot-pants ensemble suitable for hot days at the archeological dig. The sun glasses help there too. Sitting next to him is the scull of the famous hoax, Piltdown Man, with which he was associated. There is something about his pained posture that seems right. Chardin’s radical reformer ideas, including his early acceptance of evolution, was not respected by the church in his lifetime.
Here’s some stuff about him: Known for The Phenomenon of Man, he spent the bulk of his life trying to integrate religious experience with natural science, most specifically Christian theology with theories of evolution. At the time of his writing, computers of any merit were the size of a city block, and the Internet was, if anything, an element of speculative science fiction. Yet this evolution is indeed coming to pass, and with a rapidity, that in Gaia time, is but a mere passage of seconds. In these precious moments, the planet is developing her cerebral cortex, and emerging into self-conscious awakening. We are indeed approaching the Omega point that Teilhard de Chardin was so excited about. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist and took part in the discovery of both Piltdown Man and Peking Man. He abandoned traditional interpretations of creation in the Book of Genesis in favor of a less strict interpretation. This displeased certain officials in the Roman Curia and in his own order who thought that it undermined the doctrine of original sin developed by Saint Augustine. From 1912 to 1914, Teilhard worked in the paleontology laboratory of the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, in Paris, studying the mammals of the middle Tertiary period. Later he studied elsewhere in Europe. In June 1912 he formed part of the original digging team, with Arthur Smith Woodward and Charles Dawson, to perform follow-up investigations at the Piltdown site, after the discovery of the first fragments of the (fraudulent) “Piltdown Man”. Professor Marcellin Boule (specialist in Neanderthal studies), who so early as 1915 astutely recognised the non-hominid origins of the Piltdown finds, gradually guided Teilhard towards human paleontology. At the museum’s Institute of Human Paleontology, he became a friend of Henri Breuil and took part with him, in 1913, in excavations in the prehistoric painted caves in the northwest of Spain, at the Cave of Castillo.
8. Saint Isaac Jogues
9. Jean de Lalande
10. Saint rene Goupil
Joques, Lalande, and Goupil are all together because they worked and sometimes were tortured and died together. Joques has fingers missing as they were bit off as one of many tortures by the Indians. Lalande is seen with an oar because he rowed the injured Joques down a river for miles rather than escaping by himself. This faithfulness impressed the Turtle Clan, who wanted to spare him (but the Wolf Clan had other ideas). Goupil was a doctor so he had the stethoscope and fashion scrubs. They all dies miserable deaths because they insisted on imposing their faith on Native Americans who did not want it. Joques in particular was killed because he was teaching the sign of the cross to native children. You don’t mess with people’s kids. The three stand next to Tekakwitha due to their connection with Indians.
11. Saint John Nepomucene Neumann (Bishop Neumann). Italians remember Bishop Neumann as the founder of the first national parish for Italians in the United States. At a time when there was no priest to speak their language, no one to care for them, Bishop Neumann, who had studied Italian as a seminarian in Bohemia, gathered them together in his private chapel and preached to them in their mother tongue. Neumann is dressed here in a very hot priestly tunic with sign-of-the-cross zipper. With his black gloves and slicked back black hair, he just looked like an Italian fashionista.
12. Servant of god Vincent Robert Capodanno – is pictured with military-inspired clothing as he was known for his service as a chaplin. The particular model I used for this also had a rough-n-tumble dirty appearance for the fashion layout, which worked well. Capodanno has three Purple hearts which he earned because he was injured three times in combat as he ran around giving last rights to dying solders. He died from the wounds on the battle field. I’m sure they dying solders were comforted by his presence.
13. Saint Rose Phillippine Duchesne became a teacher, so she is holding a pointer as she appears to be giving a lecture on the Lady in the center. Like all the nuns she has faintly nun-like clothing. Duchesne is also near the people associated with Indians because of her work with American Indians.
14. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin founded a nun congregation and some schools in Indiana. She is an official Hoosier Pioneer as named by the Society of Indiana Pioneers. You can’t make stuff like that up.
15. Cardinal Dulles was an advocate of the death penalty and in his most influential later years, he was a staunch conservative theologian in an era of liturgical reforms and rising secularism. Therefore, in my painting he is clothed in tricked out Cardinal attire that conveys something of an ominous feel. Dulles seems to me to be the most of all the figures into the regal trappings of Cardinalhood. The model also has the square jaw and thin lips of Dulles.
16. Joseph Fitzpatrick, S J was an Irish priest, but he became a forceful advocate for the successful integration of Puerto Rican immigrants into New York City and the Catholic Church. His pants have a label that is comprised of the Puerto Rican flag with a shamrock where the star would be. He also sports a Kelly green scarf.
17. Cesar Estrada Chavez wears a UFW patch on his arm with the symbol he created. He carries grapes to the virgin. He stands near Dorothy Day, who he seems to share some qualities with.
18. Mary (Mother Jones) Harris was a labor organizer and mineworker leader.
“I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hell-raiser!,” she said. The defiant look on the model’s face seemed right. She is pictured here with white hair as the real Mother Jones had. The hat she is wearing was added to the fashion model image by me. It comes from a famous picture in which the real Mother Jones wears the same hat
19. Elizabeth Maloney was a waitress organizer and union leader. She is holding a waitress tray with offerings of beverages and sugar for the Lady.
20. Mary Kenney O’Sullivan is associated with the garment labor movement.
Her attire emphasizes fabric. Her posture suggests exhaustion from hard work in the garment factories.
Mother Jones, Elizabeth Maloney, and Mary Kenney O’Sullivan are pictured standing together as if they are forming some sort of picket line blockade. Elizabeth Seton rests her hand on O’Sullivan’s arm in support. This is the labor movement side of the painting. Most of these people organized workers (or advocated for others less fortunate. This is also the rabble-rouser side. Dulles was once a liberal, but grew into a conservative so he’s coming in from the right—maybe to confront, maybe to support.
21. Annie Blout Storrs started the American Women of Calvary organization, which pioneered new ways to care for those on life’s final journey. Here she can be identified by her lovely Calvary tiara.