American Diptych – The Burning Bush & The Robe of Mercy – Two new paintings by Margaret Adams Parker
I, Margaret Adams Parker, recently completed a set of two paintings titled American Diptych – The Burning Bush & The Robe of Mercy. Depicting Mary and her Son as African Americans in contemporary dress, the paintings offer us unexpected ways to envision figures that many of us may have imagined very differently.
Most of us have an image in mind of Christ and Mary, often derived from a childhood Bible or a much-loved painting. We may even think of them as portraits. But there are no descriptions in Scripture of the appearance of either figure, and this has allowed Christians through the centuries and across the globe to imagine Mary and Jesus in myriad ways. Very often they appear as “one of us”: as Asian or African; of European descent; or from among Indigenous Peoples. If we want an historical depiction of 1st c. inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin, we might turn to images such as these 1st and 2nd c. funerary portraits from the Faiyum in Northern Egypt.
The two panels of American Diptych were created for an exhibition at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Artists were invited to submit diverse images of Jesus for a show titled De-Colonizing the Christ. My own entries, with an African American Christ and Mary, feature a hardscrabble rural landscape and a derelict urban setting. These background details recall the Great Northern Migration in the years between 1916 and 1970, when six million African Americans fled oppressive conditions in the rural South in search of a new start (which, sadly, did not always lead to a better life) in the great urban centers to the North and West.
In each painting I evoke the icon tradition with a sky painted gold and with written texts. And I include symbols – traditional as well as modern –that provide a second level of meaning, as they do in so many medieval paintings.
The Burning Bush was inspired by an ancient icon depicting Mary as the Burning bush. In that icon (the most famous is at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai) Moses removes his shoes in the presence of the Christ child, who is shown in Mary’s womb, surrounded by flames. The text in my painting is an excerpt from a joyous hymn to Mary as the Burning Bush, widely used during Advent by Orthodox Coptic communities: “The fiery bush that Moses saw was not consumed; so Mary carried the fire of Divinity in her womb.” In homage to both the icon and the hymn I posed Mary against a “burning” tree, a scarlet dogwood, and inscribed Mary’s halo with flames. The spring trout lilies and iris remind us of the traditional symbols for Mary’s purity and her suffering. And a purple cloth, tied around the “burning” tree, echoes the purple cloak in The Robe of Mercy.
The Robe of Mercy originated in my response to haunting phrases from F. Pratt Green’s Holy Week hymn text, To mock your reign (Hymn 170): “They did not know, as we know now, that though we suffer blame, you will your robe of mercy cast around our naked shame.” This Christ, in a fusion of Passion and Resurrection imagery, is majestic in bearing but wears the shredded garments of Passiontide suffering and manifests the wounds of his Crucifixion. In the gesture of healing described in the hymn, he casts the purple cloak of his humiliation “over” the viewer. The color of Christ’s cloak is picked up in the purple bougainvillea, a vine sometimes called the Judas tree. And the bread and wine of the Eucharist have become, on this desolate street, a roll and a cup of coffee discarded on the pavement.
These paintings emerge out my long-time interest in including images of African Americans in my work. This practice dates back to 1993, when I created three small sculptures in response to an early sermon by the Rev. Michael Curry, now Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I have recently come to understand that this is my form of reparation for the actions of my slave-holding forbears. I now hold the verses from Revelation 7:9 in mind as I work: from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. And my goal is to enlarge the canon of religious imagery by depicting holy figures as persons from diverse periods, cultures, and peoples.
About the artist:
Margaret Adams Parker is both artist and theological educator. She has completed multiple commissions for churches and church institutions, including Virginia Seminary, Duke Divinity School, Washington National Cathedral, and churches across the country. This past Lent her painted Stations of the Cross panels were offered by VTS’ Lifelong Learning as a public resource. Parker has served as adjunct instructor at VTS since 1991. She is the co-author, with Ellen Davis, of Who Are You, My Daughter? Reading Ruth through Image and Text (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) and, with Katherine Sonderegger, of Praying the Stations of the Cross – Finding Hope in a Weary Land (Eerdmans Publishing, 2019.) www.margaretadamsparker.com