The Story Behind a Stolen Black Icon | Sojourners

The Story Behind a Stolen Black Icon

St. Louis-based artist Kelly Latimore is no stranger to controversy around his icons, as his works often depict religious figures in untraditional ways. In fact, the artist said he welcomes the dialogue, seeing it as an important tool for understanding faith.

“What I’ve noticed is that it does say a lot about a person and their own experience for how they view the piece and the icon itself,” Latimore said. “That’s just a statement on its own.”

But the last two weeks of backlash surrounding his icon, “Mama,” a painting that depicts the Black Virgin Mary cradling Jesus’ dead body in a style known as a pietà, have been different.

The icon is on display in two locations — the Catholic University of America’s Columbus Law School in Washington, D.C., and at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion near St. Louis. In November, The Daily Signal, a conservative news outlet, published a story about the CUA edition of the painting. Since then Latimore has been receiving death threats.

The painting was first displayed at Holy Communion in the summer of 2020, and CUA held a ceremony to unveil their edition — hanging outside the law school’s Mary Mirror of Justice chapel — in February of this year. After the Signal and other outlets wrote about “Mama,” the CUA student group Young Americans for Freedom started a petition to remove the painting, contending that the painting depicted Christ as Floyd, and calling that depiction “disrespectful, and sacrilegious.”

The university, however, said in a statement that they do not read the icon as depicting Floyd, and instead said the image represents “a good-faith attempt to include religious imagery on campus that reflects the universality of the Catholic Church.” Latimore told Sojourners that to say the painting is either Floyd or Christ is “not the most faithful answer.”

“George Floyd had the imago dei within him, the image of God, as we all do, but it is Christ,” he said.

But before the community at Catholic University could address concerns or engage in conversation about the icon, it was stolen. Latimore said the theft could prompt more robust discussion at the university.

“What's going to hopefully happen is it's going to create a dialogue that maybe wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been stolen,” Latimore said.

Diverse depictions of Christ

In 2014, after a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was Black, just 10 miles from Holy Communion, the church began working to diversify their religious imagery and encourage parishioners to take an active approach to anti-racism. While Holy Communion was one of the first churches to integrate its pews back in the 1960s, images of a white Jesus still prevailed inside its sanctuary.

The church bought “Mama” during the 2020 summer of racial justice protests, displaying the image on their altar. While the placement was supposed to be temporary, Rev. Mike Angell said he isn’t sure parishioners would let him move it now. When the church’s comment section on social media was flooded with backlash from people outside of the community, parishioners came to the icon’s defense.

“It became sort of a pivotal moment for the congregation, people were saying ‘No, there’s a reason why this matters to us, we see Christ in this icon and we see the beauty of what this is, and it is part of our faith. We need to embrace this,’” Angell said. “I think it heightened the conversations [about anti-racism] in our congregation.”

Angell said that diversity in religious imagery for Holy Communion — which is 40 percent Black — is one of his ongoing priorities.

“I have a good friend who grew up attending predominantly white Episcopal churches and as a little girl, she can remember wondering whether or not Black people went to heaven because she had only ever seen white angels,” Angell said.

Theological significance

The depiction of Christ as white has been refuted by historians as inaccurate, neglecting that Christ was born in Palestine. But some theologians also stress that there is a theological significance in how Christ is depicted.

“To take seriously that we have a crucified savior at the center of our faith means that theologically we cannot depict him in such a way that suggests he is on the side of the dominating power and structures that oppress,” Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and the canon theologian at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., told Sojourners.

“The fact of Jesus’ crucifixion is that he entered into utter, uncompromised solidarity with, what I termed, ‘the crucified classes’ of people of his own day and time,” she said. “His ministry was a testament to that.”

The point of icons and religious symbolism, she said, is to point beyond what’s physically displayed, to a greater understanding of God. And for some people, that may come with the challenge of changing their perspective on things they’ve long considered fact — like Jesus’ ethnicity.

“What’s going on at Catholic University has shown us that people at Catholic University aren’t ready for Black life to reflect not just human life, but also the sacred,” Douglas said.

However, Douglas said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t valid critiques to depicting Floyd as Christ. Douglas said portrayals of Christ in the face of Black people who have died at the hands of state violence have left her feeling trapped by the idea of redemptive suffering — that the sacrifice of Black people is necessary for collective redemption.

“We have to move beyond the cross to the resurrection,” Douglas said. “Death did not have the last word over George Floyd’s life, over Trayvon Martin’s life, or Breonna Taylor’s life because people continued on in their names, to fight for life … to create conditions that nurture life and not death. That was God’s response to the crucifixion — the resurrection.”

Since “Mama” was stolen, the university has directed all press toward the media statement released on Nov. 24. The university said they replaced the stolen icon with a smaller copy that had hung in the campus ministry office.

Historical reactions to Black Christ

Edward Blum, a historian and co-author of the book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, said that during the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1920s and 1930s, it was quite common to find artwork that blended the crucifixion with lynchings. But back then, this type of iconography didn’t receive the same pushback.

“There wasn’t an outcry because white people largely didn’t view the art at all; they didn’t know it was there,” Blum said. “Predominantly white communities weren’t displaying this type of thing.”

What’s different now is that “Mama,” like other diverse icons, is on display for the entire community at Catholic University and, because of technological capabilities today, to anyone with access to the internet.

“It seems like the contestation over [“Mama”] is far more about political division than it is even about racial division,” Blum said. “Everything Jesus-related is going to be grabbed into American culture wars. That’s just gone on throughout the entirety of American history.”

To Latimore, the painting’s theft and the controversy surrounding it are important parts of understanding the type of iconography and art that will encourage difficult but necessary dialogue between people with different perspectives.

“I think that [the painting] has created a conversation that, though at times has been really violent and sad, has also been really interesting and helpful to witness,” Latimore said. “It’s created the conversations that we feel need to happen in our communities, especially our communities of faith.

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 11:40 a.m., Dec. 7, to correct the subtitle of Edward Blum’s book.