A black Christ in the arms of his mother, Maria, reproducing the emblematic masterpiece of Miguel Ângelo – Pietà, Piedade in Portuguese. It is with this image that the Pontifical Academy for Life, an organism of the Vatican, has taken a stand in the fight against racism. I’m happy.
The symbolism of this biblical image is immense, both for believers and for non-believers. It depicts the moment when Christ has just been taken up from the cross, lifeless, and gathered into his mother’s lap. A mixture of pain and compassion in front of a son held up by his mother’s arms, moments before the body was prepared for burial, as if the mother’s knees still provided protection in this circumstance.
There are phrases that leave us speechless. “No father should have to bury a child,” I once heard from my grandfather. I swallowed without being able to utter a word. There will be no greater pain, it is said, which is why the performance is so emotionally intense.
For believers, piety shows Mary as the universal mother, to whom everyone can turn and whom everyone welcomes in her arms. It is taking a stand with all the victims, affirming compassion, showing unconditional love. The poet Miguel Torga sums up in the following lines: “I can still see you, Mother, still watching, / Of stone and sadness, in your corner, / With me on my knees, dead and naked, cold, / Wrapped in folds of your coat. The choice of the figure of a black man to represent Jesus Christ is the recognition of this inclusion, of this equality, of this humanity. Black lives matter.
The original idea of this revisitation of Miguel Ângelo’s work belongs to artist Fabio Viale, who in 2018 portrayed Lucky Ehi, a Nigerian boy, lying on the same replica instead of Christ. Ehi was forced to flee Nigeria due to threatening religious persecution. In the suffering of this young man, she symbolized the suffering of humanity in a period of despair which seeks to support itself in a love that transcends social, religious, political or geographical differences. Refugees’ lives matter.
The novelty of the photomontage recently published by the Pontifical Academy for Life is that it is a triple message against racism and xenophobia. At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has given the fight against racism enormous visibility, there is an unequivocal position here. On the other hand, the moment of the disclosure of the image is not innocent: it happened the day after the funeral of Willy Monteiro Duarte, a 21-year-old with Cape Verdean parents, beaten to death by neo-fascists on the outskirts of Rome – we do not forget Giovani Rodrigues, whose tragedy is so similar. Finally, do not consent to the shame of Moria and the disaster of the EU’s migration policies.
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The presentation of Christ as a black man is a milestone in the visibility the Catholic Church gives to people from groups that have always been under-represented, viewed as subordinates, historically oppressed. What was once exclusion and oppression has given way to meaningful inclusion.
However, cries of “blasphemy” were quickly heard. The conservative and reactionary sectors of the Catholic Church, with a particular emphasis on the United States, reacted violently: who dares to change the creation of Miguel Ângelo? “Sacrilege, retro vade”! In fact, Renaissance sculpture reproduces the Eurocentric character of the context in which it was created, where whites were placed at the top of the social and human hierarchy, hence the features with which Christ is sculpted. It is this supremacist narrative that these reactionary sectors feel threatened when Christ is presented as coming from a racialized community. Outrage is not about artistic freedom, it is about attacking the deep roots from which racism and hatred emanate. We are not mistaken.
Vatican positions do not rewrite the history books, erase crusades or inquisitions, or hide the responsibilities of the Catholic Church in the spread of racism or in the justification of slavery. But they seem to indicate that you want to write a new page, which is welcome. And when it comes to the image of Christ, important for believers, the words of Father Anselmo Borges seem wise to me: “there are many possibilities to imagine it”.