The most recent Holy Woman Icon with a folk feminist twist that I’ve painted is the Virgen de la Caridad. Like Mary, Guadalupe, La Negrita, and the Virgin of Regla, she was commissioned by a bold and brilliant friend, a scholar who lives, teaches, and does the work of intersectional feminism on a daily basis. As with my beloved friend who taught me so much about Jane Addams last month, this dear friend has taught me so much about feminist understandings of Marian Spirituality and of the need for many secular scholars to keep a connection to their religious roots.
When we discussed her commission, she wanted to make sure that the Virgin of Caridad was the primary focus of the icon, but since she is also often associated with Oshun, she also wanted elements of this Yoruban goddess to shine through. I was thrilled with the opportunity to learn, research, grow, and paint. Little did I know what kind of important learning was in store.
The legend of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre began in the early 1600s in Cuba. The story goes that three poor men—two indigenous workers and one an African slave—were in a small boat searching for the salt needed for curing meat. While in the Bay of Nipe, a treacherous storm arose, tossing their tiny boat violently and endangering their lives. Juan, the slave, was wearing a necklace of the Virgin Mary, so they began to pray to her for protection. Immediately, the waves calmed, the skies cleared, and the storm dispersed. Overcome with relief, they saw a strange object floating in the water. As they rowed toward it, they realized it was a statue of the Virgin Mary holding a gold cross in her right arm fastened to an inscription that read, “Yo Soy la Virgen de la Caridad,” or “I am the Virgin of Charity.” According to legend, the statue remained dry even while floating in the water. Such is the story of the Virgen de la Caridad, the Patroness of Cuba.
She is often associated with Oshun, the youngest of the orishas of Santeria. Oshun is the orisha of love, beauty, femininity, and sensuality, powerfully embodying the fullness of womanhood. Like Caridad, she is affiliated with waters, charity, love, and the color gold or yellow. Both Oshun and Caridad are traditionally portrayed as multiracial, so many believe that they symbolize the Cuban people. Every year on September 8, Cubans show their love for Oshun by placing sunflowers, honey, and pumpkins on her altar, lighting candles, and dressing in yellow.
So, I filled my canvas with shades of gold and yellow as a beautiful woman rises proudly out of the waters, a golden cross on her right, parting the waves that billowed around her. Amidst the tumult, her heart cries out to us:
Waves of charity
Poured from her beating heart,
Washing over all humanity with love,
Beauty, and power…
Both the Virgen de la Caridad and Oshun remind us that love requires powerful fearlessness, and that rising up for the poor and marginalized is an important part of love. Throughout my research and painting I was emboldened by this love, eager to share their fascinating stories. With this eagerness in mind, this Holy Woman Icon traveled with me across the United States as I delivered her to my beloved friend in California. As with each of my Holy Women Icons, I posted images of her. When I did so I was called into a conversation that strengthened my intersectionality and offered the graceful corrective I needed.
You see, when I first shared images of this painting, I incorrectly labeled it “Virgen de la Caridad syncretized with Oshun.” Fortunately, a gracious scholar who specializes in Santeria offered a gentle corrective. “Please, not ‘syncretized,’” he implored, “‘Venerated under the title’ might be more accurate, without the racist implications of ‘syncretism’ (which is conveniently connected to African religions).” I was mortified. We usually are when we make such a mistake, aren’t we? My immediate reaction was to defend myself, “But I’m not racist! Everything I’ve read used the word ‘syncretized,’” I thought. I’d surmise that brashly defending oneself, proclaiming a lack of any racist intentions is the typical response of most liberal white people like myself. As much as I wanted to do this, I paused, reminded myself that my white privilege had clouded my judgment, and that it was now time to take responsibility for my mistake and educate myself so that I wouldn’t make the same mistake again, thereby contributing to the marginalization of people of color.
A thoughtful and beautiful conversation ensued—through social media, no less! I shared how grateful I was that he called me into a conversation rather than calling me out, though he certainly had every right to do the latter. I still feel some shame, and to be honest, I think that I should. As a person committed to intersectional feminism, I should have known better. I should have done better research. The kindness of the corrective—often necessary within anti-oppression work—embodied much of what both the Virgen de la Caridad and Oshun teach us: graceful charity. So, thank you, dear friend, for commissioning her painting. Thank you, social media stranger, for engaging in thoughtful dialogue. Thank you, Caridad and Oshun, for giving us the merciful grace we all need to do the work of justice.
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, Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B, and Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church. 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