Each month on Feminism and Religion, I feature a Holy Women Icon with a folk feminist twist. The painting is accompanied by an essay describing the holy woman’s life and the ways she stood for justice and peace, the ways in which she embodied feminism. Thus far, we have explored the stories of holy women that are well-known, perhaps not by the wider public, but by feminists seeking to uncover the forgotten truths of holy women throughout history. They are goddesses, saints, artists, dancers, scholars, clergy, and pillars of the faith: 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, Martha Graham, Pauli Murray, La Negrita, Tiamat/tehom, and Mother Teresa, just to name a few.
We tell their stories in our classrooms. Other artists paint them. Many have biographies or autobiographies recounting their lives. Their stories embolden us to stay strong, and continue working for justice and equality. But what of the women whose songs really are unsung, whose stories never grace the pages of our textbooks? What about the “unknown” women who have, indeed, emboldened us, paved the way for us to be who we are, but who most people have never heard of? Many such women are also holy, thus deserving of canonization as Holy Woman Icons.
I would like to dedicate this post to all the holy women who fill our lives, yet whose stories we never hear. Because it is not only these seemingly famous women—these heroines of feminism—who are holy and whose stories matter.
It is also those unknown mothers, courageous sisters, daring daughters, prophetic ministers, challenging teachers, and bold lovers who make our world a more just and holy place. As an artist, I have the rare privilege of learning about many such women. In case of my wife or mother, these are holy women who grace my life on a regular basis. Accordingly, I paint them. With a brushstroke, they are canonized a “Holy Woman Icon.” For me, this is a tremendous gift and honor.
This gift becomes the highest honor when I am commissioned to paint an icon on someone’s behalf. Some of these women have commissioned an icon for themselves as a reminder of who they want to be and become. I think, for example, of an attorney named Katie. Lawyers may not be the first to enter one’s mind when considering holiness, but I knew that justice was at the heart of Katie’s practice, that she worked for equality for the least among us. And now an icon depicting the holiness dwelling inside her own heart brightens the walls of her law firm.
I think of Jen, Jodie, and Patricia, three ministers who embody the feminine divine in their work. Jen, an incredibly talented musician and singer, also works with youth, emboldening them to find holiness within. Jodie queers the pulpit each Sunday and raises her voice prophetically for equality, change, and justice. And Patricia commissioned an icon as she was ordained to work with seniors living among the redwoods. For all of these women, there was power in imaging with paint, color, and design the aspects of their vocational callings not confined to words. In the case of Jodie and Patricia, their icons became a part of their ordinations.
I think of young women and girls whose families have chosen to celebrate graduations or special birthdays by commissioning an icon on their behalf. As Emma turned thirteen, her grandmother chose to honor her holiness by having an icon painted to remind her of her innate worth. As Katy graduated high school, her mother wanted her to remember the bold ways she stood for justice when she was only a teenager. And as Lottie approached her first birthday, her mother wanted a tangible reminder of her namesake hanging her daughter’s bedroom as she grows up.
And there are many others: parents who commission an icon upon the birth of a daughter, clergy, scholars, fellow artists, and women searching for inspiring and empowering images amidst the barrage of oppressive images of women catapulted our way daily by the media. They are the unknown heroines whose lives make our world a better, more just, more peaceful, more beautiful, more holy place.
In glimpsing briefly at their lives and witnessing their holiness, I hope that you will also realize your own innate holiness. Honor it. Invoke it. Live it. You are a holy woman icon, too! 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.
If you are interested in commissioning or purchasing an icon or print, I am offering a 10% discount from November 1-December 10. If you purchase a copy of Holy Women Icons along with your order, your discount is 15% off! Simply contact me for details at firstname.lastname@example.org
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, Holy Women Icons, and Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B. 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