Contemporary iconographer speaks about his craft

The Medieval Institute presented the webinar, “Sacred Art and the Journey Toward Justice” on March 3. Cosponsored by the Program of Liberal Studies, the webinar was part of a series entitled “Pilgrimage for Healing and Liberation.” 

This series aims to “investigate pilgrimage practices of hospitality and cross-cultural encounter from the deep past to the present day.” Its coordinators are Sr. Annie Killian, O.P., the Public Humanities Fellow at the Medieval Institute and LaRyssa Herrington, a theology Ph.D student.  

This event—featuring artist Kelly Latimore and Professor Richard Klee, a member of the Moreau College Initiative and Visiting Assistant Professor for the Notre Dame Initiative on Race and Resilience—was promoted as exploring “inclusive representation and Black-Brown iconography in the Christian tradition.” 

In an interview with the Rover, Sr. Killian said that Latimore is “drawing on some medieval iconographic traditions in the icons that he’s doing.” For instance, “He has some icons that are particular to places where people go to visit the icon,” including his icon of the patron of New Orleans, Our Lady of Prompt Succor—people go to the parish where it is displayed to pray to her when a hurricane is on the way. 

Latimore began creating icons in 2010 when he was part of an Episcopalian group, the Common Friars. During the event, he explained, “that whole experience really kind of took my spirituality from transcendence to communion, engagement, and embodiment—that the way that we use things is of the utmost spiritual significance.” A friend of his and fellow Common Friar, proposed that he consider creating icons. According to his website, “I traced over the lines of Christ, the saints, and biblical scenes for months until I began contemplating new icons based on our community’s life, work, and mission.”

Pope Francis spotlighted his work when he selected Latimore’s La Sagrada Familia for the cover art of his book A Stranger and You Welcomed Me. Latimore also often depicts what Professor Klee referred to as “unexpected saints,” such as Mary Oliver and Mr. Rogers. 

Latimore feels a connection to Franciscan spirituality, out of which he draws what he describes as “making the invisible visible.” He said, “if you’re looking for Jesus in your neighborhood, go walk around and you’ll probably find him,” which is something that he thinks Saint Francis would have said.

Latimore spoke about Tent City Nativity, a piece which depicts the Holy Family in his home city, St. Louis, MO. which recently passed a law banning camping in response to the large number of homeless people living in tents. In his art, the homeless characters provided what they had to the Holy Family, such as coffee. He emphasized that “taking these same metaphors, that the experience of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus 2,000 years ago, that is still happening to the homeless poor, to the refugee who is fleeing violence in their land.”

Through works such as this piece, he aims to employ “the tradition and the forms of iconography, but carrying it into the present so it’s made new, and can potentially do what all art can potentially do, which is create dialogue and can be used as a new way to see and help each other to see.”

Speaking about Latimore’s piece, Dorothy Day and the Holy Family of the Streets, Klee commented that it “presents a theme that’s present in a number of [Latimore’s] works, which is that you have the figures of Jesus and Mary and Joseph literally in the midst of experiencing the conditions of Matthew 25—hungry, begging on the street without shelter, a refugee family,  subject to arrest and imprisonment.” Klee noted that this also also applies to Latimore’s “icon of George Floyd and his mother.”

Latimore shared that after Floyd was killed, he and others started to discuss “what kind of image could we create not only to mourn the death of George Floyd … [but also to ensure] that this doesn’t keep happening to mothers who are continually losing their daughters and their sons unjustly: unjustly murdered by the State, just as Mary lost her son 2,000 years ago.” This is why the Pietà was chosen as a model for an icon George Floyd and his mother. Hanging outside of the chapel at the Law School at the Catholic University of America, the piece was taken away after being stolen on two occasions. 

The president of the university later issued a statement, including the following, “Regardless of your interpretation, it created needless controversy and confusion, for which I am sorry. The controversy has, however, invited us to consider an important issue. How we depict Christ in art matters. It should reflect what we believe about God, and our relationship with Him.”

The Pilgrimage for Healing and Liberation series will conclude at the beginning of April with a pilgrimage to the Tolton Spirituality Center in Chicago. Venerable Augustus Tolton is on the path to becoming one of the first African-American saints.

From Dallas, Texas, Kathryn Bowers is a sophomore in the Program of Liberal Studies who also studies theology. Notre Dame Right to Life Club prays every Friday at 3pm. While our location varies, we will be on the side of the Basilica facing the Dome along with the Knights of the Columbus for at least the next few weeks. 

Photo Credit: La Sagrada Familia from Kelly Latimore Icons on Facebook

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