Now you can see her genius at work in a gorgeous new book, “Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie.”
The Vermont artist is committed to creating inclusive art celebrating women. She is best known for painting a controversial black female Christ in “Jesus of the People,” which was chosen by PBS art critic Sister Wendy Beckett to represent Jesus in the new millennium.
That painting is in the book, along with 27 more works by McKenzie. Another highlight is “Epiphany,” which presents the three “kings” as a multiracial trio of women. McKenzie’s daring view of the Magi angered conservatives when the head of the Episcopal Church used it as her Christmas card in 2007.
Even though McKenzie alters race and gender in her work, her art is never contrived. She makes it seem natural to see an Asian Madonna or the Holy Family with African features. The book also includes some historical people of color, such as Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American convert to Christianity.
Each picture is accompanied by an essay that provides historical background and theological reflection. McKenzie’s art is so profound that the essays pale in comparison, even though they were written by 28 well known women writers. Contributors include Sister Wendy, bestselling novelist Ann Patchett, womanist theologian Katie Cannon and feminist nun Joan Chittister.
The matching of authors and images is artful, sometimes even inspired. Helen Prejean, a nun who works against the death penalty, writes about “Jesus at Gethsemane.” Katharine Jefferts Schori is paired with “Epiphany,” her controversial Christmas card. Barbara Marian reflects on “Mary with the Midwives,” which she commissioned.
The book focuses on women’s spirituality, but it is not for women only. I recommend it for anyone seeking the Divine Feminine or alternative Christian imagery. The $28 price is extremely low for what you get -- a hardcover book of top-quality color pictures printed in Italy on glossy paper that is luscious to the touch. The book could easily fetch twice the price.
One category of women is noticeably under-represented: lesbians. None of the writers are identified as lesbian, and only two of them make references to LGBT people. Korean theologian (Chung) Hyun Kyung.includes “heterosexism” in her definition of sin and states, “Thanks to the rise of liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology, Asian theology, African theology, Indigenous theology, womanist theology, mujerista theology and queer theology, we can now reimagine Jesus and declare that Jesus is a campesino, black, female, Asian, African, Indigenous, Hispanic or queer.”
A more poetic approach to LGBT issues comes from poet Edwina Gateley. She imagines what Mary thought while pregnant with Jesus:
I birth you, my child
and in you is embraced
My divine love for all humanity --
black and white and brown,
male and female,
gay and straight.
McKenzie has demonstrated her own support for LGBT people by generously sharing her art here at the Jesus in Love Blog. She allowed me to use her famous “Jesus of the People” on the cover of my book “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More.” My book also includes McKenzie’s “Christ Mother,” a majestic nude female Christ bound in a crucifixion pose. That image is so challenging that it has been censored by the gatekeepers who decide what gets shown. Unfortunately it is also missing from “Holiness and the Feminine Spirit.”
The Catholic Press Association recently honored McKenzie’s new book with two awards. It won first place for Spirituality (hard cover) and third place for Design and Production. In this case, the Catholic authorities are right. This beautiful book goes a long way toward expanding and enhancing the ways we see holiness.
Before “Holiness and the Feminine Spirit” was published, some of the images were posted here at the Jesus in Love Blog. Click the following links to see our original posts:
The Holy Family
Christ Mother (Not in the new book -- and this is the only place to see it online!)
“Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie.”
Edited by Susan Perry
Orbis Books (the publishing arm of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers)
Hardcover, $28, 146 pages
For more about Janet McKenzie, visit her website or watch this video of her on “Art Express” from Mountain Lake PBS in Plattsburgh, NY. It includes interviews with the artist, scenes of her in action as she paints, and photos of the woman who modeled for “Jesus of the People.”