by Jennifer Brown
I would like to share this example of African American Christian art from the Harlem Renaissance period. In Mother & Son, Richmond Barthé uses a traditional pietà to depict, in the artist’s words, “a Negro mother receiving into her arms at the foot of a tree the body of her lynched son,” (Jones, 2018). Pietà, a theme in Christian art depicting the Virgin Mary holding the body of the dead Christ, is most associated with European art.
Barthé was known for his love of classical sculpture and for sculpting black nude male figures. According to Lindsey (2018), Barthé’s depiction of black male nudes bestowed the classical ideal on bodies that had been excluded from such consideration. Barthé, a devout Catholic, in speaking of his work said, “All my life I have been interested in trying to capture the spiritual quality I see and feel in people, and I feel that the human figure as God made it, is the best means of expressing this spirit in man” (Adams, 1976).
I appreciate Barthé’s Mother & Son for its elevation of black figures and for its reimagining of one of the most traditional Christian themes to call attention to issues of racism and justice. The image of a mother mourning the death of her son is universally understandable and speaks to our shared human experience.
Mary’s Other Song
If I hold my hand against the wood, flat, like this
I can feel your breathing. Slow.
I remember Labor. A mother does.
At least, I think that is your breathing I feel.
on the other hand
I am feeling the Earth, moaning.
When I kissed the soles of your feet in the manger
they were soft.
You kicked and giggled
with those pudgy arms out
at right angles to your little body,
Like they are now, but soaking wood.
Now I feel those same feet on my head
So much walking. Callouses. Dust to dust.
Spent on humanity.
On being With us.
And the rose-blossom around that spike.
“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”
“From tender stem hath sprung” a cross-beam.
I remember that night, three decades ago.
Shepherds, wise men, angels.
It was noisy.
And here now are we my sweet boy.
And John the Beloved one.
The morning sky livid sky in
rose crystals, blues and mauve.
For now, choking back our Halleluiahs
With an eternity of sentient beings.
Even the sun mourning the Son.
Here waiting with John, your friend.
He just keeps staring up at you;
wood in both hands.
Two holding wood
the third clutching iron.
Waiting for dear life.
For life, Dear.
by Charles LaFond
Adams, Russell L. Great Negroes: Past and Present. 3rd ed. Chicago, Illinois: Afro-Am Publishing Company, 1976. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richmond_Barthe’
Encyclopedia Britannica. “Pietà Iconography,” September 10, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pieta-iconography.
Jones, Victoria Emily. “Book Review: Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, Ed. James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill.” Art & Theology (blog), May 25, 2018. https://artandtheology.org/2018/05/25/book-review-beholding-christ-african-american-art/.
LaFond, Charles. “Mary’s Other Song.” Episcopal Cafe (blog), April 19, 2019. https://www.episcopalcafe.com/marys-other-song/.
Lindsey, Odie. “Barthé, Richmond.” Mississippi Encyclopedia, April 13, 2018. https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/richmond-barthe/.