I’m not interested in church for the religion as much as I am for the variety. Visit a city or even a mid-size town and pop into a few of these institutions and you’ll see what I mean. Some resemble medieval castles with their lethal spirals and flying buttresses while others are modest boxy things all worn, green carpeting and slats for windows. It’s as if God doesn’t have a house so much as He has one of those sprawling development communities with a name like Dove’s Landing or Eternal Plains. Each unit entirely customizable!
This is especially true for church iconography. You might walk into the vestibule to find a statue of St. Francis carved out of teak, lit from below of course, or there might be an oversized patch-work quilt banner hanging on one of the side walls depicting Noah and his floating zoo. Font size matters. It’s not just what images and figures make it into the overall church decore—after all, no Disney Hall of Presidents would be complete without Lincoln, ditto for Jesus, Mary, and the gang—it’s the way they are represented that makes things really interesting.
My brother and sister-n-law were married in a tiny, country church in an even tinier town in New Hampshire. It was one of those square churches sided with white, wooden clapboards. The kind that you imagined Puritans building with wood hewn from the nearby forest and cheap labor from the Native Americans who they had handily convinced to help them out in exchange for taking all of their land and eviscerating their culture.
The pews and altar furniture all had a generic feel to them as if they were ordered from the Catholic Collection for Ikea. But on the wall just to the right of the altar was an oversized, thrillingly life-like statue rendering of the crucified Christ. The piece was so detailed there were tiny flaps of skin slightly upended on the wounds of his hands and feet. The wounds themselves were unmistakable given the thick, fat nail heads protruding from the savior’s skin. Gruesome. A face contorted in anguish, tendons wrenching in his arms, a six-pack to make Sly Stallone jealous. Who did this? I wondered. John Carpenter? I assumed that whatever money had been set aside for a new organ went to securing what could pass for one of those animatronic figures at some popular “themed” restaurant in Florida. If this was the church’s not-so-subtle way of underscoring their main brand message about sin and guilt, someone should ping the Pope and let them know that this miniature parish in rural New Hampshire was really putting those bloated city churches in New York and Chicago to shame.
I believe there are many paths to spirituality, to God, Allah, Buddha, Gaia, Mohammad, Beyonce—whatever you’re into that you consider “source” that doesn’t drive you to stoke hate or division or lock up your mind like a pouch of vacuum sealed baby food. Therefore, it only makes sense that there should be many ways to represent the important people and stories from any religion. I’m most familiar with Catholicism and even that is more of a general working knowledge after having gone through Communion and Confirmation. But I know enough to believe that if we can get away with churning out a few different versions of the Bible, we really shouldn’t blink at a Black or slightly Pakistani Jesus. I’m really OK with a clean-shaven Moses who resembles a high school football coach. I’m open to a Judas sporting an eye-patch and a gold tooth (saber optional). What’s the harm, really? It isn’t as if we have selfies to go by or that any of these people are going to round up their team of lawyers to sue for likeness rights. Clothes don’t make the man, as the saying goes. The water still ends up as wine even if roller disco Jesus flicked his centaur-like hand/hoof to make it so.
I was reminded of this again when I recently visited the Arlington Street Church in downtown Boston. Built in 1861, the church is one of the oldest in Boston. When it comes to dissent, New Englanders clock in at achievement level-expert. Half the region exists because we told England to piss off. So it goes with the Arlington Street Church: the original congregants were Presbyterians, but finding that doctrine too rigid, split with it to create something they called Unitarian Christianity or what we now term Universalist Unitarianism. This spiritual practice is a disco buffet of essentially humanitarian beliefs—justice, equality, inclusion, compassion, peace, and service to others and the community. If I ever decide to go all in on an organized spiritual jam, it will be this one. I view it a bit like getting extra credit in life: shouldn’t you already be doing most of these things anyway?
The church is rank with Boston history from having its roots in the earliest form of Unitarianism to hosting anti-Vietnam draft card “turn-in” and “burn-in” demonstrations in the late-1960s, to being the site of the first state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in 2004. Currently a rainbow flag dangles from the ledge of one of the stone windows facing Arlington Street balanced out by a Black Lives Matter banner affixed to the wall to the left of the door. The Arlington Street Church has always been something of a house for radicals and, from what I can tell, those standing on the right side of history.
That day I didn’t visit the church for soul-saving or history; I was just interested in the windows. The church also contains 16 stained glass windows made by Tiffany Studios—the renowned glass work artisans of the early twentieth century. Tiffany stained glass is the Rolls Royce of this type of art work—luxurious, decadent, exquisitely made, finely detailed, and equal parts status symbol and art piece.
In this respect, the Arlington windows do not disappoint. Commissioned and installed between 1899 and 1929, the windows showcase all of the marvels that Frederick Wilson, Tiffany’s primary designer, had to offer with colors so rich they seem to glow in the dark and a host of jaw-dropping techniques—layering glass panels and using something called “drapery glass” to create texture and a type of 3-D effect. I once got in over my head trying to make a small, pottery candy dish in Girl Scouts. Genius visits the fortunate I suppose.
The windows lining the top floor depict the Beatitudes, blessings given by Jesus during his Sermon on the Mount. They are things like “blessed are the peace makers” and “blessed are the merciful,” again, very common sense, do-your-best-not-to-be-a-complete-dick kind of encouragement. The windows on the ground floor portray different scenes from the Bible such as Jesus in the Temple and Jesus With the Children. As I read the descriptions in my complimentary tour pamphlet, I noticed a recurring theme, which was that Wilson took some liberties interpreting the scenes. I kept coming across a variation of the phrase, “Wilson made the unusual decision to have Christ gesturing…” or “Wilson’s atypical inclusion of a horn…” This also held true for the panel representing The Annunciation—the moment when the Angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary to deliver the news that she’s about to get knocked up and have the world’s first supernatural baby. Paraphrasing.
Most images of this scene show a demure Mary, humbled by the honor foisted upon her. As if you could actually say, “Thanks, but no thanks” to a messenger of God. This was hardly a swipe left Tinder situation. And there is a bit of that in this window. Mary is shown as a slight woman, little more than a stalk wreathed in green robes, perched on her knees in supplication to the Angel who physically dominates the image. His wings bow under the weight of the frame; his giant ethereal stained glass body overwhelms. Whereas in other depictions that have Mary’s hands folded against her breast or clasped in prayer, in Wilson’s envisioning Mary holds her hands up, palms out as if to say: Stop, wait, hold up; can I have a second to think about this?
I noticed this detail right away, and it occurred to me that Mary is scared. I think it’s a fairy tale of Disney On Ice proportions to think that any woman wouldn’t be terrified in the same circumstances: a powerful figure swoops in (literally apparently) and tells you that you’ve been picked to give up the rights to your body, but, wait for it, there’s an upside—it’s so you can birth the savior of the world (i.e. supernatural baby). Keen. It’s too bad Wilson didn’t go one step further and give Mary’s mouth a little roundness as if she were screaming in astonishment and anxiety, sort of The Annunciation alla Edvard Munch.
Catholicism serves up the party line of Mary’s humility and grace, which is right there in the prayer that bears her name: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. But why should we take that as the only way to tell that story? If we can have a Black Jesus (and we damn well can!), why can’t we have a Mary who is shocked and confused and afraid? The short answer is because that would put a very large dent in the idea that women are meant to be docile and submit control of their bodies to a higher power. The shorter answer: because patriarchy.
I’m sure I could be accused here of overthinking it, or of insisting on seeing things through my feminist gaze. It’s not something you can just pop out like contact lenses, you know. Once an old boyfriend and I were at farmer’s market when I started haranguing on about how the vendors doing the selling seemed to be men and if there were women with them, they were rearranging the kale or wrapping jars of honey. “Don’t you think it’s weird that the men seem to be the mouthpieces here and the women seemed to be just window dressing?” I asked.
“Mouthpiece? What are you, a gangster from the ’20s?”
“No,” I said. “I’d be a moll because history and patriarchy.”
“Why does everything have to be thing with you?” he sighed.
I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I want to see a kind of depiction of Mary that was maybe not Wilson’s original intention. Until I get a full report from someone who was in the room with Gabriel and Mary, I think I’ll remain open to interpretation. And besides, women need all the role models of strength and defiance we can get right now. Clip the wings and change the story, but we still find ourselves staring up at a white man in a robe who fancies he knows what’s better for our bodies and lives than we do. No thanks. I’m sticking with my feminist Mary, a radical Mary. Hail Mary, full of resistance I am with thee.