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Icon painter uses Eastern art to depict Native American spirituality

Special Report Writer
West Redding, Conn.

For Fr. John Giuliani, icon painter and leader of a popular worship center in southwestern Connecticut, a foray into iconography began as an aid to living alone.

Giuliani had studied art, graduating from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1952, but gave it up to become a priest. Some 17 years after he was ordained for the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese, he asked for and got permission from the late Bridgeport Bishop Walter Curtis to start the Benedictine Grange here in 1977. A sacred space with a barn plank floor, the Grange attracts some 200 worshippers each Sabbath.

At first Giuliani was joined at the Grange by five religious brothers. Over the next dozen years, each of the five left for reasons of health, studies or ministry. “Being alone I realized I’d have to give myself to some profound creative work or I couldn’t maintain my solitude,” he said.

Giuliani commuted to New York City to study icon painting with an Eastern Orthodox master. He learned the rules, how to prepare the wood, how to begin by tracing. He started with an angel before attempting to paint a saint, Mary or Jesus. He also realized how American he was, how Western his spirituality.

He prayed: “God, how can I use this discipline of iconography without depicting religious figures in a Greek or Byzantine manner?”

Giuliani’s “eureka” moment came in 1990 in the frenzy of the national debate over the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. “I’ll depict Native Americans as the first spiritual presence on this continent,” he told himself. He studied artifacts of the various tribes, Navajo, the Hopi and the Sioux. He got to know their artifacts -- their textiles, ornaments, weaving and beadwork.

“I wanted to surround these religious figures with their gifts,” he said.

Requests for his work weren’t long in coming.

The Jesuits serving the Lakota in Pine Ridge, S.D., sought a work to commemorate a religious personage. The Sioux Spiritual Center outside Rapid City, S.D., wanted two of his works.

Giuliani met with Bishop Charles Chaput, a Franciscan, then bishop of Rapid City, and started a long correspondence with him. Chaput, son of a Potawatami mother, became America’s first Native American prelate in 1988. Today as Denver’s archbishop, he keeps a Giuliani icon of the Potawatami Madonna in his office.

Post cards and posters of Giuliani’s art began to traverse the country. They entered the dreamscape of Larry Hogan of Crow Agency, Mont., a stone’s throw from the Little Bighorn battlefield. Hogan envisioned the ceiling of his parish church, St. Dennis, covered with mysteries in the life of Mary depicted in the image and likeness of his Crow people. He sent Giuliani blueprints of the tepee-shaped church.

The artist left Connecticut for the Great Plains. He didn’t want to “misread” Hogan’s dream, but he felt the paintings would be “too heavy” for the tepee’s ceiling. “Let’s see Mary’s human trauma at ground level,” he said. The perspective was persuasive.

On Sept. 15, 1999 -- Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows -- the Crow Catholic community claimed “The Crow Series,” a set of Marian mysteries in 13 icons with the final work a climatic rendering of the Trinity. The three-by-six-foot panels are spaced across the church’s wall.

What theologians and Western artists long accepted as Marian “mysteries” have become both poetic and realistic in their Crow translation. The language holds no word for Assumption, but a Crow translator titles this work: “When They Take Mary to the Everlasting Land, Blessed Kateri and Nicholas Black Elk Show Her Great Respect.” Portraits of the beatified Mohawk maiden and the Oglala visionary, on either side of the crescent moon that cradles Mary, enhance the mystery.

Similarly, in the icon depicting the visit of the Magi -- the one shown on the cover of this issue -- its Crow title becomes “Chiefs Come from the East to See Jesus and His Parents.” The title reflects Giuliani’s depiction of the three wise men as members of the Iroquois, Fox and Huron -- tribes from the East of North America -- bestowing gifts of feathers, moccasins and a beaded stole.

While the icons portray ancient stories that happened in the Judean hills, the artist spreads the mysteries across the Montana landscape -- snow-covered Rockies sheltering the fleeing Holy Family on their winter trek into Egypt. When Mary visits her cousin, it is spring. Flowers carpet their meeting and mingle in their moccasins. Elizabeth’s robe is sewn with shells, symbols of the fertility God has granted her late in life.

In his four Passion icons, Giuliani paints stark compositions against a sky of scarlet, crimson and magenta. The panels “awaken the depths of divine compassion in the beholder,” said Notre Dame Sr. Kathleen Deignan, director of Iona College’s Spirituality Institute in New Rochelle, N.Y. Deignan was one of several supporters of the Grange who attended the dedication ceremony in Montana.

In the panels, she found that the artist had married the mystical aura of traditional iconography with the sensuality of Western European painting and had rendered them in the form of an indigenous sensibility. “The faces remember and mirror the passion of the people depicted -- their exile, their executions, their estrangement from their ceremonial ways, their own frustrated destiny.”

Chaput has called Giuliani “a visual missionary.” His rendering of the Trinity as a great grandfather arched over the warrior hero, Jesus, who wears the victory jacket -- with a sacred bird, the eagle, between them -- uses images rather than words to depict the triune God. Native Americans who have seen his work thank Giuliani for depicting their image as a holy one. He was touched when an elder was overheard to be pointing out her Uncle George in the face of one of the figures listening to the boy Jesus in the temple.

Giuliani has received letters from Orthodox Christians accusing him of doing “great violence” to iconography. In his replies, he acknowledges that he views the icon as a window into the holy and has retained its solemnity of form. “I know I have intentionally stretched the canon. I feel a certain liberation here, not guilt.” He is proud that his work celebrates Native Americans as the first spiritual presence on this land, and that it’s also “a visual ministry of reconciliation.”

Using himself as a model, Giuliani would drape a blanket around his body, observing its folds, or he’d go to a mirror and study his hand. “Overall these icons are what I imagined, but they became much more Italian. The love of nature, the love of realism comes through. Without intending to, I painted my mother. My brother is in the Christ. The sheer goodness emerges. It’s what’s in your soul” that ends up in acrylic on gesso board.

Besides the joy that accompanies creating works of art that could heighten worship for generations to come, Giuliani has also experienced a deepened prayer life as a result of hours of labor over many years. While painting, he becomes “totally self-forgetful.”

“It’s an awesome process. You see that a gift has been entrusted to you to develop and to transmit to another. To apply that concept to work itself is a profound realization.”

It’s a lot like prayer, he said, noting that prayer is “not recitation and doing, but being in communion with the other.” It’s the giving and disposing of ourselves in order to receive.

“I’m humbled by the hours of prayerfulness that were granted me while giving birth to these mysteries,” he said. “I have these children who’ve all left,” he said of his icons that have found homes. “They’re all living on their own. Now I just want to keep having babies.”

Giuliani’s work has appeared on NCR’s cover before. The Dec. 20, 1991, issue carried his icon titled “Comanche Virgin and Child.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000