Since yesterday was the Feast of the Annunciation, folks were posting some of their favorite images of Our Lady's "Fiat." One of the first ones I came across was this gorgeous piece, posted by Gloria Purvis:
As if on cue, a triggered white woman jumped at the chance to "remind" me of Our Lady's cultural and religious heritage...
I imagine she looked something like this whilst typing that...
Annnyway, I immediately called her out, and her racism merely intensified as if, through her paltry and uneducated attempts at justification, she'd suddenly NOT be racist anymore.
Alas, that's not how it works. Even when YOU don't think you're being racist, getting triggered by an African interpretation of Our Lady is, in fact, quite racist.
Forget the fact that the Blessed Mother, herself, took the form of an Aztec woman at Guadalupe, a Vietnamese woman as OLO La Vang, an African woman as OLO Kibeho (Rawanda), a Japanese woman as OLO Akita, and pretty much every other ethnic variety. None of that matters. Obviously the Blessed Mother defiled her own Jewish heritage by daring to appear to her children as anything other than the lily white Jewish woman popularized by the Renaissance! Oh, the horror!!!
Clearly that's sarcasm on my part, but let's be real: this is exactly what this commenter was saying by getting snippy over the fact that an artist chose to render Our Lady as a black woman. In trying to squash the art (and artist), she ended up inadvertently attacking the Blessed Mother, herself, who is mother to all and thus happily appears to her children in a comforting, recognizable form.
That all said, I decided to delve deeper into this piece to learn more about it and have come to share my findings with all of you!
It turns out that this gorgeous image of the Annunciation was actually part of a larger, 63-piece project commissioned by French missionaries to Cameroon, Africa, for the educational use of the Mafa Christians who lived there. The French missionary, François Vidil, put together a group of locals, specialized artists, and photographers who would gather to pray, read the Bible, re-enact scenes from the Bible, and then create unique, African-inspired art to help the greater community learn about and connect with the Gospel. Much like stained glass and sacred art before the birth of the printing press, these paintings served to bring Jesus to those with no other means of knowing Him.
How amazing is that? This project (and the art it inspired) became known as Vie de Jesus Mafa. You can learn more about it here!
All that being said, let's get on with the nuances of this beautiful piece, shall we?
Here we see Our Lady sitting by a fire. She wears her typical "Blessed Mother Blue" and seems to be caught midday as she was cooking. Interestingly, her pot and ladle look an awful lot like the spindle and distaff which are typical Marian symbols of the Annunciation (found in many other pieces of sacred art), and I can't help but think the missionary who painted this intentionally painted her pot to reflect that.
Surrounding that pot are three stones - two in the foreground, and one hidden behind the pot to support the back end. A fire connects them all and engulfs the pot and ladle. This careful choice of 2 visible and 1 invisible rock is indicative of the Trinity. Jesus was about to become incarnate within Our Lady and would be obscured, just as that third rock is obscured. Present, of course- and connected by Divine Light to the Father and Spirit- but hidden in the womb of Our Lady.
Our Lady's dress, itself, is replete with symbols. Her dress is "off-the-shoulder" to indicate her youthfulness. Her hair is tightly wrapped as it would be for any African woman as she went about her chores in the sweltering heat of Cameroon. The pattern of her dress is almost cosmic, as if the entire universe was present. Finally, an eye (specifically, the African "eye of Horus") can be seen on her left leg, indicative of God's presence and protection.
I'd like to note that this does *NOT* mean the artist is trying to say that God is like Horus. The artist simply chose a well-known and easily identifiable symbol (like St. Patrick and the shamrock) and used it as a means to highlight a Biblical concept on their terms.
A circular seat is before Mary, as if she was awaiting someone. Ever the gracious hostess, Our Lady always has a seat open at her table. The circle, of course, is also a symbol of God (Who has no beginning, and no end).
Finally, a water pitcher is at the far right of the painting and another, much larger vessel, is behind her. Given water's scarcity in the region during the dry season (which is indicated by the barren mountains and dry straw on the ground), I imagine the artist is highlighting Mary's access to the life-giving waters of Christ.
Her demeanor is one of surprise. I feel as though the artist chose to depict the moment of Gabriel's bombshell: God has chosen YOU, Mary, to be the Mother of the Savior! Her hands are in movement, almost seeming startled, yet her face is wise and accepting, as if she knows the gravity of her mission and understands the ramifications of accepting that mission.
Notice that she is FULLY bathed in light. There are shadows cast from the roof, but those shadows do not touch her. No... Our Lady is bathed in light, because she is about to become the bearer of Light.
Next we move on to Gabriel...
Gabriel doesn't show up as a winged creature, or in a fiery cloud of divinity. Instead, he comes to Mary as a simple man dressed in a feathery, crisp white robe- conveying purity. At his feet is a broken coconut, a symbol of God's Divinity and Lifegiving powers being poured out.
He has his arms open and upturned, a gesture of peace and offering. Almost as if blooming from his shoulder, a gorgeous tree (I can't be sure, but I believe it's either a date palm or a coconut tree) indicates he brings with him hope. The chicken, just ahead of him, is a well-known symbol in African culture that encapsulates an adage that describes a perfect mother: The hen treads on her chicks, but she does not kill them. This chicken is wandering the area between a smooth, polished rock and a jagged stone. In other words, Our Lady is the ideal mother who can properly lead a child (in this case, the Holy Child) with equal parts nurturing and direction.
Finally, while we can see the town in the distance, Our Lady's hut is clearly set apart. She is connected to the town, but she is not part of the town. This once more highlights that Mary is set apart from the rest of humanity. As the Mother of God, she was granted special grace from conception to be Immaculate and free from original sin.
Oooo, and can I point out the tiny little tree in the middle of the piece? It's as if it's leaning in towards Mary, breathlessly awaiting her "Fiat." All of creation awaits that "Fiat" with the same bated breath, knowing that the salvation of the universe hinges on her consent.
I don't think I will ever tire of meditating on the mystery of the Annunciation/Incarnation. The enormity of those events always mystify, overwhelm, and humble me. It's no mistake that I named this blog after Our Lady's "Fiat." It was the "yes" that set in motion Salvation.
That all said, while we all know that Our Lady (and Jesus, and Joseph, and the apostles, and the early Christians, etc, etc, etc) were Jewish, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with depictions of the Blessed Mother as a black woman (or a Vietnamese woman, or an Aztec woman, or an Irish woman, etc). The Blessed Mother is mother to us all, and she leaves that seat open for us to sit beside her always.
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