The Period Eye A passion play

Catholicism and visual catharsis

By Alison Gingeras

Follower of Hans Memling, Virgin and Child, 16th century. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art and Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.

  • 16 August 2019

My visual education began in the modest interior of a house with a brown sandpaper façade nestled at the end of the 6 train, in a neighborhood called Pelham Bay, neatly hemmed in by the Throgs Neck Bridge and City Island in the northeast corner of the Bronx. For decades, beginning in the mid-19th century, the neighborhood was a bastion of the Irish and Italian working class.

Many residents had been American for several generations, yet with a constant influx of fresh immigration, the community fermented with ferocious ties to the Old World. Blindingly white, dominantly Catholic, zealously conservative, this corner of New York was, and maybe still is, a time warp. No need to watch ‘All in the Family’—Archie Bunker was our neighbor. The social and political revolutions that roiled the rest of the city in the late 1960s and early ’70s barely reached our shores, where Irish cops and small-time Italian mobsters lived side by side in ‘mother-daughter’ houses.

Alison Gingeras with her grandfather Charley Fitzpatrick. Photo: Dot Fitzpatrick

My great-grandparents and grandparents had lived in a house in the middle of Zulette Avenue since the house was erected at the turn of the last century. By the time I was born, we were four generations shoehorned into a block dominated by the dreadful geometry of cheap aluminum siding—unconsciously I had drunk in Dan Graham’s ‘Homes for America’ along with my baby formula. Inside the house, the principle motifs fell into one of three categories: Irish, Catholic, or tchotchke; the most treasured objects embodied all three. A ceramic holy water dish sat at the bottom of the stairs, perpetually filed with the sacramental waters that my grandparents dutifully schlepped back from their yearly pilgrimage to Our Lady of Knock shrine in Ireland. The maternal gaze of the Virgin, in either lithographic or sculptural incarnation, peered from every corner. Naturally, an effigy of Saint Patrick had pride of place in the sitting room, and a humble cross of Saint Brigid hung nearby. Another cherished relic of the Old Sod, this cross was among my favorite things in the house. Fashioned from woven rushes with a distinctly Gaelic geometry, it was, in fact, as I later learned in my rebellious teenage years, based on iconography pilfered from the pagan Celts, who had used it to celebrate the Imbolc festival at the start of spring. I locate my attraction to this object, retroactively, in the springtime of my own heathen leanings. After all, one of my earliest memories involves the blasphemous questions I whispered to my mother on the way home from kindergarten: ‘How do we know Jesus was a real guy? Isn’t this all just some made-up story?’

I wanted to liberate this beguiling iconography from both the shackles of religious meaning and the visual dross of working-class American Catholicism.

The most enduring visual memories of my childhood are perhaps the religious figures depicted on the small prayer cards that my grandmother tucked into the front of her kitchen cabinets. As I sat eating at her Formica table, I would stare up at this laminated pantheon of saints, fascinated by these imposing figures populating an already overpopulated household. For me, these cards, handed out during the endless stream of wakes and funerals we attended (the mortality rate in our section of the Bronx must have been exceptionally high!), did more than memorialize departed relatives and friends; they marked the first steps down a long road of fascination with Catholic iconography and devotional art. I would later learn that the bland illustrations on these cards—renderings of the Holy Family, Mother Mary, Saint Christopher, Saint Francis, Jesus with his flaming heart, rendered in syrupy hues in a cheesy stock-image style—represented a centuries-long degradation from a complex visual symbolism developed in the earliest examples of woodblock prayer cards produced in 1400s in the Low Countries. As fascinated as I was by the narratives attached to these figures, I ultimately rejected the aesthetics of this canned Catholicism just as I rejected the repressive dogmas of the church itself. And yet barely a decade later, as a young art-history student, I found myself unconsciously gravitating back to this imagery.

Piero della Francesca, The Virgin With Child, Angels, and Saints (Pala Montefletro), 1472-74. Courtesy Pinacoteca Brera.

Jan van Eyck and Workshop Assistant, The Crucifixion; The Last Judgement, c. 1140-41. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art and Fletcher Fund, 1933.

Like most coming-of-age stories, this one took the form of a kind of repetition compulsion that fueled a search for more meaningful versions of the religious images printed en masse by McNulty’s Funeral Parlor. In psychoanalysis, repetition compulsion is understood as an attempt to rewrite our histories through constant reprisal of past tropes or behaviors, in order to strip away the distressing content of the past. In my case, I wanted to liberate this beguiling iconography from both the shackles of religious meaning and the visual dross of working-class American Catholicism, to reinvent it with a fervently secular devotion to the intellectual and aesthetic achievements within religious iconography. Anyone who’s stumbled across my Instagram account could be forgiven for wondering if I’m a Jesus freak. But my regular recourse to Catholic imagery has nothing to do with the eternal; its motivation is in the here and now—to find sophisticated, sometimes weird permutations of ancient visual narratives in order to restore a sense of wonder and delight to the picture book of my youth, as well as a search for an emotional experience that transcends the forced religious belief suffusing all those pictures, lining all those cabinets, back in that kitchen in the Bronx. In Bruges The superstars of 15th century Flemish painting lived and worked in Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling and Gerald David. My juvenile obsession with Flemish painting led me to apply to study in Belgium, where, for the equivalent of 20 bucks, I was able to ride the rails on a student pass nearly every weekend for more than a year, seeking out the works of primitive painters, masterpieces and forgotten gems alike. I crisscrossed the country looking in churches, municipal museums, tiny villages and glamorous medieval cities like Bruges, Antwerp, Leuven and Ghent for religious pictures by the anonymous Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula, as well as works by Dieric Bouts and Rogier van der Weyden. On at least six separate occasions that year, I purposely traveled to see van Eyck’s ‘The Madonna With Canon van der Paele,’ in Bruges’ storied Groeningemuseum. This extraordinary Marion painting from 1436 depicts the Virgin seated on a throne in a dark church interior, holding a classically ugly baby Jesus who in turn holds an exotic parrot. The resplendently beautiful, decidedly Nordic-looking Mary is flanked by Saint George and Saint Donatian. The painting’s commissioning patron, Joris van der Paele, a papal scribe who amassed considerable wealth, kneels in the right foreground. Mary’s downward gaze directs the viewer’s attention to van der Paele’s curious black glasses and the intricately rendered pages of his prayer book.  Upon each viewing, my eye and brain worked in tandem computing the pictorial minutiae, deciphering the composition, drinking in the 500-year-old chromatic richness and trying to digest the symbolism of this immersive picture without the aid of a textbook. The patrician folds of the canon’s skin seemed to quiver with breath, and the play of glances of all the figures suggested the whole painting might be an allegory of opticality. Looking at it, I had my first taste of art-historic obsession. This was no cheesy prayer card.

Jan van Eyck, Madonna With Canon Joris van der Paele, 1436. Courtesy Groeninge Museum Bruges.

As a young initiate, the discipline of art history became the perfect secular cover for my compulsions and for my intellectual devotion to studying the permutations of ancient narrative convention—the Annunciation, the Passion, the Lamentation, the Assumption of the Virgin, all those gruesomely martyred saints and surreal baby Jesus homunculi. I could divorce these scenes from the spiritual. Even if I knew the chapter and verse of each biblical character’s theological significance, I could start to remove the dogmatic use-value of the paintings and weigh them simply as images of humanity. I could ‘read’ them as formal and symbological puzzles, or as vehicles for these painters’ ingenious compositional inventions and unmatched technical skills. On my Flemish pilgrimages, I learned how to look. And how to think about art for myself. Devotion became the product of movement, not faith. I had to get myself to these paintings, across many kilometers and train lines. The pleasure of looking and understanding was conflated with all the observations and chance encounters along the way. The downtime between each pilgrimage forced me to think about what I was going to see, to digest what I had just seen. Pilgrimage is about leaving the comfort of your home as much as it is about paying homage or witnessing a given thing. Art owes us a feeling, and those pilgrimages enabled me to feel.

It is the artist’s ability to capture the devastating substance of human loss—emotion captured and fixed into two dimensions with mere oil paint—that remains so viscerally moving.

Feeling—or at least the astonishing depiction of feeling—is, in fact, what got me hooked on art. ‘Andachtsbild’ is the art-historical term for the genre of Northern European painting whose specific function was to elicit an intense emotional experience. Prevalent in the 14th and 15th centuries, these small-scale devotional images of a bleeding Christ or mournful Mary were designed literally to make us cry. It is not just the verisimilitude of Memling’s tearful ‘The Man of Sorrows in the Arms of the Virgin’; it is also the artist’s ability to capture the devastating substance of human loss—emotion captured and fixed into two dimensions with mere oil paint—that remains so viscerally moving. This palatable mournfulness endured for more than five centuries. The potency of such ‘Mater Dolorosa’ paintings emanates from their absolute humanity not from their subject’s divine backstory. Decades after my first encounters with the ‘Andachtsbilder’ genre, I tested the power of these paintings on my seven-year-old at the Met. Gallery 641, in the Department of European Paintings, is an obligatory stop every time I set foot in the museum. Dieric Bouts’s diminutive oil-on-wood painting ‘Virgin and Child’ (circa 1455–60) sits behind thick glass on a pedestal of the center of a room full of masterpieces. Bout’s image of maternal love riffs on an antique archetype of the affectionate Madonna that dates at least from the Byzantine tradition, but its punctum is the tender touch of the subject’s faces, the corners of their lips just touching. Mary’s eyelids are blissfully heavy while her son’s are focused upwards, locked on her gaze.  Lifting my son up to have a look through the Plexiglas, I asked him what he thought about this special image. I assumed that Bout’s tiny picture would be, to a boy raised without religion, just another dusty old portrait, but it wasn’t. ‘That’s a picture of you and me, Mommy,’ he said. ‘It’s us, just back in time.’ The shortest verse in the Bible says, ‘Jesus wept.’ Needless to say, I did, too.

Dieric Bouts, Virgin and Child, c. 1455-60, oil on wood. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art and Theodore M. Davis Collection, bequest of Theodore M. Davis, 1915.

Hans Memling, Pieta, c. 1480, oil on panel. Courtesy Capilla Real Cathedral, Granada, Spain.

Jesus’ Junk ‘She’s looking at Jesus’ junk!’ This was the painter Walter Robinson’s exclamation on my Instagram in response to a posting of a particularly lusty crucifixion study by Delacroix. Rendered in brushy strokes, the piece shows a bare-breasted Mary Magdalene languishing below a freshly executed Christ, her eyes laser focused on the Savior’s loins. Leave it to an artist to understand immediately what motivated me to post the image. For years, I’ve carried around Leo Steinberg’s book ‘The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion’ (1983) as my extracurricular reading—dipping in and out of Steinberg’s great erudition with great relish. My husband gave me the book after a decade of partaking in my religious painting obsessions, indulging in detours to obscure chapels and museums in Sicilian villages and across the Polish hinterlands. Premised on Catholic theology’s insistence on Christ’s flesh-and-blood carnality, Steinberg’s book argued that Renaissance artists lavished particular attention on the depiction of Jesus’ genitals in order to prove his dual status as both Man and God. Steinberg explains that ‘for a Western artist nurtured in Catholic orthodoxy…the objective was not so much to proclaim the divinity of the babe as to declare the humanation of God.’ Bolstered by a close reading of Saint Augustine, as well as by the work of a contemporary Jesuit theologian, Steinberg goes on to claim: ‘If the godhead incarnates itself to suffer a human fate, it takes on the condition of being both death-bound and sexed.…Thus understood, the evidence of Christ’s sexual member serves as the pledge of God’s humanation.’ Presenting evidence in the form of hundreds of Renaissance depictions of Jesus’ sex as a baby and as an adult redeemer, Steinberg hastens us to do no less than contemplate Christ’s cock. Whether in the deliberate exposure of the swaddled Christ child’s groin in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Magi (1487) or in the sensuously rendered, starkly naked body of Michelangelo’s Risen Christ (1514–20), this art history of the holy penis was, at least to me, pure heaven.

Eugene Delacroix, Saint Mary Magdalene at the Foot of the Cross, 1829. Courtesy Efrem Kurtz and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Corpus from a Crucifixion Group, c. 1400. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art and Gift of G. J. Demotte, 1920.

Beyond the transgressive jubilation that came with each reading of this audacious interpretation—nothing could have been further from the sexual repression of my upbringing—Steinberg offered a way to liberate Catholic art from its ghetto of denial. I wanted to see each Jesus and every Mary not as empty archetypes but as individual subjects at a given historical moment. And Steinberg gave me the permission to probe that underlying humanity within a deeply coded subject matter. Reading him emboldened my profane preoccupation with Christian iconography. He uncovered what the censors zealously sought to obfuscate and trained my gaze to contemplate Christological manhood—revealing not only the suppressed taboo but more importantly insisting upon the inherent eroticism of all humans.  ‘Jesus and his 12 Boyfriends’ is only one bridge farther than Steinberg’s ‘The Sexuality of Christ.’ If we accept Steinberg’s premise that to be human is to be sexual, why would it be implausible that Jesus was gay? Since the early 1980s, the artist duo McDermott & McGough have ‘preached’ their own revisionist version of Catholicism—creating works that make explicit the homoeroticism inherent in centuries’ worth of images of Christ. Without reading Steinberg, they too picked up on all the phallic contemplation. It was, in part, their daring conjecture that enticed me to work with them over the past three years as the curator for an ambitious gesamtkunstwerk: a Temple to Oscar Wilde, which they have so far staged twice, in New York and London. The catalyst for the project, as well as its visual tropes, was the idea of Oscar the Savior—the beleaguered and beset cultural prophet, patron saint of pariahs—replacing Christ in queered versions of stations of the cross, devotional wooden sculpture and a triptych over the ‘altar,’ along with devotional images of other martyrs, such as Harvey Milk, Brandon Teena and Sakia Gunn. This temple emerged, at least in part, from of our shared repetition compulsions as Irish Catholics—our quest to reclaim the iconography and ideologies that so deeply impacted our psyches. It is only in writing this larger reflection on my visual education, in fact, that I begin to see my relationship to art history as one big Catholic palimpsest.

Off the Cross Once I got really high with the artist historian and curator John Richardson after one of the legendary dinner parties he held at his loft on lower Fifth Avenue. It is hard to fathom now how I found my then-twenty-something-self smoking such a huge joint in the wee hours with such an icon. Known foremost for his epic multi volume biography A Life of Picasso, Richardson (who died in March, at the age of 95) was an irreverent fixture of 20th century’s artistic and literary life in New York and Europe. In addition to his legendary friendship with Picasso, he spent his postwar life amid an illustrious pantheon of mostly queer artists and writers: Cecile Beaton, Jean Cocteau, W.H. Auden, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Francis Bacon. My entrée to his soirées, indirectly, was Bacon. I met Richardson at an art opening, and we got along like a house on fire after realizing that we shared a particularly naughty mutual friend in Paris named Marcel, who, back in the ’50s, had kept company with both Richardson and Bacon while cruising the backstreets around the Bastille looking for sex. Almost verbatim, Richardson repeated an anecdote I’d heard Marcel tell many times—about the night when Bacon leaped from their moving car at Place de la République onto the back of a Vespa driven by a handsome young Moroccan man who had winked at him and with whom he disappeared into the night. But it was hearing about Richardson’s close friendship with Warhol that most piqued my curiosity. The pair met when Richardson moved to New York in the 1960s. A decade later, Warhol captured Richardson’s kinky side in an infamous portrait of the aristocratic, erudite scholar in leather fetish gear. Richardson’s eulogy for Warhol in 1987 revealed an even deeper testament to their closeness. Warhol had shared his closeted Catholicism with very few friends, undoubtedly because he knew that awareness of his religious devotion would undermine his carefully crafted persona. At the funeral in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Richardson told the mourners that he believed many of Warhol’s central motifs were rooted in this secret piety. For example, he ascribed the seriality of his Pop motifs (a hundred Coke bottles, twenty Jackies, eight Elvises) to the repetition of prayers in the Rosary. Richardson also evoked Warhol’s ‘Last Supper’ paintings, made right before the artist’s death. Could Warhol, too, have fantasized about Jesus’ polyamorous relationship with his apostles? Regardless, I could powerfully relate to the Warholian attitude toward religion. And I couldn’t get enough of Richardson’s yarns, which perfectly interwove the sacred with the irreverent. To call him a hero would be an understatement; for me, he was art history incarnate—the word made flesh.

Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro), The Crucifixion, c. 1440. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art and bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913.

It is no surprise, then, that Richardson starred in one of my most psychoanalytically significant dreams to date. I had started psychoanalysis after the devastating loss of my grandparents, impelled by the desire to dig into layers of repressed family history. I loathed going to see Dr. R most Wednesdays, but with this dream, I knew I’d be bringing a pot of Freudian gold to the couch. The dream was set in a dark modernist house that seemed to be constructed out of poured concrete with heavy velvet drapery blocking the windows; the Brutalist architecture was labyrinthine. I was frantically running between different spaces of the house, preparing for something unknown, the overall mood fraught with anxiety. My panic worsened when suddenly I saw dozens of kitsch knickknacks scattered about the furniture, sitting on top of lace doilies—Oh the shame! The aesthetic abjection! As I rushed through the house, I stumbled upon my Grandma Dot leading John Richardson through the rooms, showing off her finery. I was mortified. How could my separate worlds collide like this? Repressing shock and dismay, I joined in the house tour. John pointed to an oil painting with a crucifixion scene—it was definitely an Old Master, with heavy gold leaf in the background, though I was unable to remember who had made it. We happened upon another religious painting when John exclaimed in his authoritative, posh voice: ‘But of course! These are all yours…’ My embarrassment mounted to a fever pitch.  The dream ended when a slow-motion tsunami out of nowhere howled into the backyard and I woke up, heart racing. Dr. R was well aware of my background. Catholic themes were a regular part of our sessions. I looked to him to help me unravel the meaning of this strange art-religious reverie. ‘Perhaps,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘the time has come for you to come off the cross.’