Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is among many largely forgotten Renaissance artists. While Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Raphael are household names (if mostly thanks to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Botticelli remains largely forgotten, his works bombarded quickly snapped teenage selfies by largely oblivious teenagers visiting Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.
Nonetheless, Botticelli’s paintings are among the most exquisite and beautiful depictions of the human form in all of not only Italian Renaissance, but in all of world culture.
Although best known for his depictions of pagan deities, Botticelli created a number of beautiful images of Our Lady, including Madonna del Magnificat and The Madonna of the Pomegranate.
Boticelli’s Virgins, like his Venuses, generally depict the ideal beauty of his place and age: a tall, blonde northern Italian woman with rounded face, milk white skin, and blue eyes. And that makes sense. Most of Boticelli’s female figures were modeled upon aristocratic women of Florence. It’s unlikely the artist (or his audience) actually thought that the Our Lady was a Tuscan noblewoman.
Rather, Boticelli’s goal was to depict the Mother of God—like the pagan goddesses, for that matter—as the very embodiment of beauty, chastity, and courtesy. Indeed, while Botticelli’s works are, in a certain sense, a celebration of idealized Italian beauty, they were not meant to promote white supremacy. (For the record, Boticelli’s oeuvre, such as The Youth of Moses, contains handsome depictions of black figures.)
And yet, reading a recent piece in America magazine by Father James Martin, titled, “Jesus Was Not White” one would think that Sandro Botticelli and all of the great Christian artists are part of a collaborative effort to use images of Our Lady and Jesus “to promote the idea that white is best.”
Father Martin seems especially annoyed that there exist some stained glass representations of Christ depict Our Lord as “the purest white—whiter than anyone else,” which makes for “terrible catechesis.” He worries that, if Christ is depicted as white, it might make some “feel left out.” The Jesuit suggests that “we should have Black Jesus in white churches, as a reminder of who Jesus was, and is, today. Because Jesus is best found in people that are outside your comfort zone.”
With all due respect to Father Martin, both as a priest and a man, he is woefully misled.
The majority of Christian missionaries—from Saint Francis Xavier to Father Pierre-Jean de Smet to Saint Junipero Serra—risked their life and well being for the salvation of souls, and, in many cases, defended the indigenous peoples they evangelized from the cruelties of colonial exploitation. Whether or not the images of Christ they brought with them were “white” or not seemed to have little bearing on their worldview.
In his famous 1552 “Letter from Japan,” Saint Francis Xavier writes in praise of the Japanese people whom he longed to convert to the holy Catholic Church:
The Japanese are led by reason in everything more than any other people, and in general they are all so insatiable of information and so importunate in their questions that there is no end either to their arguments with us, or to their talking over our answers among themselves. They did not know that the world is round, they knew nothing of the course of the sun and stars, so that when they asked us and we explained to them these and other like things, such as the causes of comets, of the lightning and of rain, they listened to us most eagerly, and appeared delighted to hear us, regarding us with profound respect as extremely learned persons. This idea of our great knowledge opened the way to us for sowing the seed of religion in their minds.
These are not the words of an ideologue or racist, but rather the language of a Christian impelled by true charity.
Secondly, Father Martin is entirely correct to note that people (often, but, not always) want to venerate images of Our Lord and Our Lady who look like them. And what’s wrong with that? Our Lady Herself appears to Her children across the globe; she often does so as the ethnicity of the visionary to whom she is appearing.
No one thinks that the Blessed Virgin Mary was really a Mestiza, and yet Our Lady appeared as a Mestiza to Saint Juan Diego precisely to show him that she was also a mother to new people of the Americas, who were forged from Spanish and Indian blood. The apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe was not an act of “Mexican Supremacy”; rather, it was a heavenly indication that Mary is the mother of all Christians.
Our Lady’s words to Saint Juan Diego, whom she calls “Juanito” and “my dearest and youngest son,” are especially touching and a reflection of this maternal love that she has for all of her children.
These words are echoed in the Fatima message in which Our Lady likewise referred to the Portuguese Saint Lucy as her “daughter.”
Our Lady of Akita likewise referred to the Japanese Sister Agnes as “My daughter, my novice.”
In these apparitions, Our Lady clearly wishes to communicate that she is the mother of all Christians; when she appears in a specific ethnicity, she does so not transform into a symbol of ethnic chauvinism or what Marxists would call ideology.
Rather, Our Lady’s message is that of Pentecost: the Church is composed of many different peoples from many different cultures and tongues, but the Church is united in one voice and one faith.
With his clarion call to sideline (but not necessarily destroy) traditional images of Christ, Father Martin, whether wittingly or not, has once again put himself in the service of the oligarchical power structure of the “post-Christian” West. He isn’t being radical or “edgy” for supporting the veiling of images of Christ and Our Lady as Europeans. This kind of race-baiting is heard in virtually every university, think-tank, corporation, bank, and newspaper in the developed world. Father Martin has put himself in the service of the powerful, not the marginalized.
Photo credit: Getty Images for Sheen Center