Tearing Down, Lifting Up
by Annie Dixon
Recently a social activist received national attention for targeting images and ‘stained glass windows of white Jesus and his European mother and their white European friends’ as a ‘gross form of white supremacy’ and calling for them to be torn down. While this follows protests demanding the destruction of statuary on display in the public square, it is a separate issue.
Stained glass windows, statuary, and other devotional imagery are not paid for with tax dollars nor installed where taxpayers must confront them. Rather, they are funded by voluntary donations of parishioners and are housed within or on the grounds of places of worship which welcome all but cannot force the attendance of any.
A healthy society should engage in civil debate concerning the meaning of imagery and names we must encounter when we must go to school or are summoned to court, or simply want to walk in a publicly funded park or drive down a municipal boulevard. However, those wishing to avoid ‘white Jesus’ need only sleep late on Sundays. This is not oppression. Neither is it a national or a political issue. This discussion belongs at the intersection of religion and art and is an issue for local parishes, which have been addressing it with sincere concern for decades, long before it was ‘woke.’
Catholic churches in America are the repository of some fine artwork, much of it in the European tradition but also including some handsome portrayals of Jesus, His family, and followers as Black, Hispanic, Asian, and –of course– Jewish. Most of these are recent works, commissioned by donors and committee members who made an effort to be inclusive; others are older legacies, most of which offer only supporting roles to people of color: the Magi or specific saints.
In our own Richmond Diocese, new stained glass windows have been commissioned that depict a black Good Shepherd, Our Lady of Lavang from Vietnam, Mexican martyr José Sánchez del Rio, and African saints Charles Lwanga, Monica, and Augustine, but more relevant to the current debate on removal have been decisions made regarding existing imagery. A predominantly black parish had the traditional white corpus gilded and installed in the chapel, then commissioned a corpus carved in Africa for the new sanctuary. A black pastor persuaded his predominantly white congregation to order their new crucifix in bronze rather than painted. Meanwhile, an urban parish with kente cloth altar linens opted to maintain the historic and artistic integrity of its German Gothic windows rather than switch out some apostles for darker versions. And in the capital city that is in turmoil over confederate statues, a parish had its Martin de Porres statue restored, along with updating the inscription from ‘Blessed’ to ‘Saint,’ as it has been on display there since before his canonization over half a century ago.
Religious stained glass and statuary are works of art employed to spread the Gospel. While political activists demand immediate and destructive action on current causes, the faithful are called to carefully and prayerfully consider how best to visually manifest the eternal truths in the teachings of Jesus, in order to uplift souls. This is called stewardship and it is best done lovingly and locally –and apart from angry national politics which cannot produce inspiring beauty because, as St. Maximilian Kolbe said, ‘hate is not a creative force; love alone creates.’
Annie Dixon is the project manager for Dixon Studio, a national liturgical arts firm in Staunton, Virginia which has worked with hundreds of churches to create and restore stained glass windows and statues, including those projects referenced in the Richmond Diocese. This article appeared in The Catholic Virginian, July 13, 2020.
Image: The Good Shepherd, original design by Ronald Neill Dixon for Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia; commissioned by Msgr. Walter Barrett, Pastor, 2011.