Writing Holy Women Icons by Angela Yarber

angelaFor two years I have had the great privilege of writing a monthly article about one of my Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist for Feminism and Religion. Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, Sappho, Jephthah’s daughter, Anna Julia Cooper, the Holy Woman Icon archetype, Maya Angelou, and many others that will follow in the months and years ahead have guided, empowered, and inspired me as an artist, activist, feminist, scholar, and preacher.

I knew from that outset that writing about them would deepen my relationship with each of these amazing women. I also knew that their power and efficacy monumentally increases when they join together. This colorful cloud of witnesses has filled myriad galleries, reminding viewers of the powerful women who have paved the way for us today. Many have left the group, finding a resting place in the homes, offices, and galleries of friends, colleagues, and strangers who have purchased or commissioned an icon along the way. And those that remain erupt the hallways of my home with a cavalcade of color, daily reminders of who I am called to be and become.

Between researching their stories, painting them, hanging them in galleries, and selling them, I knew that one day I would bind their stories together in a book. So, it is with tremendous joy that this dream has become a reality. Parson’s Porch Publishing, a non-profit publishing house whose mission is to “turn books to bread” by giving their profits to feed the poor, has lifted up the stories and images of nearly fifty of my beloved Holy Women Icons in a book. So, along with originals, commissions, and prints, Holy Women Icons are now available as a book and as individual greeting cards. It is my sincere hope that by binding the stories of these holy women together, they may provide inspiration and empowerment for all readers, binding all our diverse stories together in a collective cry for beautiful, unabashed, prophetic justice for all.


I am humbled, honored, and incredibly excited to share with the Feminism and Religion community an excerpt from the introduction:

Inspired stylistically by the art of Shiloh Sophia McCloud and He Qi, I endeavored to give traditional iconography a folk twist in an attempt to make it more accessible, perhaps a bit less brooding and intimidating. Emboldened by the works of myriad feminist scholars in religion, my icons aimed to subvert traditional—and often patriarchal—depictions of a virtually all-male sainthood. Though there are surely some women depicted in iconography in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of Christianity, and a robust number of women and goddesses in Hindu iconography, I found myself at a loss when it came to positive, affirming, and empowering icons of women and queer saints across the vast spectrum of religious and spiritual traditions…

Thus began a new life-long project: Holy Women Icons.

In the future, I envision painting many more Holy Women Icons: Pauli Murray, Aurora, Terpsichore, Kalypso, Aphrodite, Oshún, Lucy Stone, the Grimké sisters, Isis, Venus, Judith, Yemaja, Mary Magdalene, Tara, Ruth St. Denis, Kali, Shekhinah, Eve Ensler, Harriett Tubman, and so many others. With all of my current icons and all the potential future Holy Women, I give traditional iconography a folk feminist twist.

Yet there are elements of traditional iconography that I wish to continue. Not only is the process of making an icon a spiritual discipline, sometimes even an act of worship, but the icon itself becomes an object of veneration for viewers. The icon is not an idol, but it does represent the holy in ways that remind worshipers of the virtues of their tradition. In the case of my Holy Women Icons, painting each one was surely a holy experience. And it is my hope that viewers may gaze upon them and be inspired to look inward to see how one might develop the virtues the icon bestows. How might I be more compassionate? How might I work more fully for justice? How might I affirm my own bodily existence? How might I celebrate the diversity and holiness of others? Each Holy Woman evokes such questions. Accordingly, I provide Questions for Contemplation with each icon. May these questions guide you to look both inward in an act of self reflection, and outward to determine how you might better engage the world with actions of justice, peace, compassion, and inclusion…

Though not all of my icons are historical figures, their stories, myths, and narratives have been an important part of the lived histories of countless women from across cultures, faith traditions, and generations. Julius Lester contends that “History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own”…

By highlighting what I envision is within the hearts of these holy women, I hope that the pain of their hearts may become our pain. It is my hope that learning about the way many of these women have endured oppression, racism, sexism, slavery, homophobia, rape, violence, war, sacrifice, or the almost erasure of their existence, we may be emboldened to work to overturn these horrifying realities. We cannot forget these horrifying histories, no matter how much it pains our hearts. We cannot forget these women. We owe it to them to create a world where all may be surrounded by beauty and justice.

Above all, it is my hope that the icons and stories of these holy women will inspire you. I hope they will inspire you to acknowledge the holiness dwelling within your own heart. Honor it. Invoke it. Live it. More than that, it is my sincere hope that these inspiring women will embolden you to be an agent of revolutionary, inspirational, and courageous change in our world. May your heart be so filled with the beauty and pain of their stories that it seeps into your veins, limbs, and life in such a way that you will act to overturn systems of injustice and oppression, creating a world where all women—indeed, all of creation—may find the deep worth residing within. (Angela Yarber, Holy Women Icons, Parson’s Porch Publishing, 2014)

It is with much gratitude for the Feminism and Religion community that I invite you to join with this great cloud of holy women. Look into the mirror. Place a hand upon your heart. And celebrate the holiness therein.


Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, and Holy Women Icons. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com

Categories: Art, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Foremothers, Goddess, Herstory, Sisterhood, Spiritual Journey, Symbols

Tags: , , ,

10 replies

  1. What a beautiful cover and how wonderful that proceeds go to the poor! All good luck.


  2. Thanks, Angela, for the gifts you share at FAR and congratulations on your book!! Emily Dickinson once said: “Emblem is immeasurable.” Likewise, your icons clearly have immeasurable possibilities embedded in them.


  3. This awesome Angela! Congratulations – may a million books sell – each week! :-) Off I go to tell FaceBook!


  4. Congratulations! Wow a whole book! That’s some busy painting. Glad you put all the sisters together under one roof (their book “home”) & now they can be shared with many. Best of luck.


  5. Thanks for your support and encouragement!


  6. Congratulations! I’ve enjoyed looking at your work and reading about it. I’m excited to be able ot purchase the book!


  7. I hope you new book sells a million copies–to men who think women are chattels. Boy, will they learn better! We need books like yours.


  8. Am looking forward to hearing about your icons as they are produced. Glad to see Pauli Murray in the list. Very interesting woman. Would like to suggest Lucille Clifton. Her “Wishes for Sons,” was an eye opener.


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