Who is your Holy Woman Icon?
When I began the academic study of religion in 1999, I was struck by the pantheon of male saints, venerated, honored, painted, adored, perhaps even worshipped. From virtually every tradition, men reigned supreme—in leadership, iconography, decision-making, worship—which is one of the myriad reasons groups like Feminism and Religion must exist. To combat this oppressive supremacy.
In 2010, I decided to put my wonder and this patriarchal dis-ease on canvas. I painted a triptych of Sophia, the feminine Greek word for wisdom often understood as the feminine face of Jesus, for a group triptych exhibition. 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 womanist and feminist scholars in religion, my icons aim to subvert traditional—and often patriarchal—depictions of a virtually all-male sainthood. Though there are surely some women depicted Catholic and Orthodox iconography, 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 across the vast spectrum of religious and spiritual traditions.
Thus began a new life-long project: Holy Women Icons. Subverted. Feminized. Queered. Folked. Resisted. And, I hope, Revolutionary. Far from complete, these Holy Women Icons stem from history, literature, scripture, mythology, the arts, dance, and personal relationships. In fact, since Sophia stretched her arms across a triptych over six years ago, I’ve painted over sixty Holy Women Icons. And I’ve written about over 40 Holy Women Icons on FAR: Anna Julia Cooper, Grimke Sisters, Tiamat, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Mary, Guadalupe, La Negrita, Virgin de la Caridad and Oshun, Virgin of Regla and Yemanya, Miriam, Jephthah’s daughter, Shulamite, Deborah, Lilith, Salome, Gaia, Pachamama, Baby Suggs, Sarasvati, Aurora, Mother Teresa, Perpetua and Felicity, Freya Stark, Jarena Lee, Guanyin, Jane Addams, Fatima, Dorothy Day, Maya Angelou, Mary Daly, Sappho, Isadora Duncan, Sophia, Martha Graham, Virginia Woolf, Pauli Murray, Pele, Lottie Moon, and Harriett Tubman. Added to these are over 20 commissioned icons.
Along the way, I canonized many of these painted saints in writing, publishing Holy Women Icons as a book that includes full color images of each icon, accompanied by an essay describing her. Soon after came greeting cards and prints. Then Holy Women Icons Contemplative Coloring Book was published earlier this year. Along the way, the icons toured the country, finding homes in galleries, churches, houses, offices, and seminaries. In painting, writing about, preaching about, teaching about, and leading worship and retreats about these revolutionary and subversive women, the Holy Women Icons Project became more than a painting exhibition, or book, or coloring book, or sermon, or worship service, or retreat, or Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies undergraduate course. As I sold the final paintings left in the collection, with only one remaining (Anna Julia Cooper), I realized that the Holy Women Icons Project has become my vocation. Painting, researching, writing, teaching, and preaching about these intrepid women is what I want to do for the rest of my life!
But there are so many more left to paint, research, create. So, I’m turning to you for inspiration. As I closed out my last Holy Women Icons show with only one original canvas left, I knew I wanted to begin the project with a slightly different medium. To the lumber yard I journeyed, intent on making future icons slightly more like traditional ones by painting them on wood. Still folk-feminist in style, the wood is cut and my paints are ready. At the top of my list is to paint a series of transwomen, including Barbara Satin and a “Holy Trans Woman Icon” archetype to try and lift up the many transwomen who are killed by violence, discrimination, and suicide. Next is another archetype to embody the Black Lives Matter mothers who have lost children to police brutality. Then are an array of Hawaiian Goddesses, queer iterations of Mary, and an assortment of Advent and Christmas Mary incarnations.
There are many more, I know, and I am eager to know them, paint them, learn from them. So, I would be love it if you would share the women you wish to call holy. Who do you nominate to join this unlikely cloud of witnesses, this motley gaggle of saints, holy women who have revolutionized, subverted, inspired, and emboldened you? Please include the name of the woman and a brief description in the comments and join me in this creation process.
As you consider what Holy Women Icons have inspired and empowered you, I invite you to also look in the mirror and see the face of one worthy saint status. For doing the intersectional feminist work of justice is no easy task, my friends. Doing this work makes you holy, indeed.
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, Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church, and Holy Women Icons Contemplative Coloring Book. 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