The Common Good
March-April 1997

A Window to the Sacred

by Lori Erickson | March-April 1997

Father John Giuliani's Native American icon paintings.

For nearly two millennia, countless artists have depicted the Christian story in images that reflect their own particular time and culture: Jesus, Mary, and the saints have been envisioned in forms as diverse as those of Italian peasants, African nobility, South American villagers, and Dutch bourgeoisie. The images convey the fundamental truth that while the Christian faith began in a specific time and place, all peoples can nevertheless claim ownership of it.

And so it may not be surprising to see paintings that feature a Navajo Christ or a Hopi Virgin and Child, works of art that blend Native American imagery with Christian themes. The unexpected part is the artist responsible for these images: Father John Giuliani, 64, is the son of Italian immigrants and a resident of Connecticut, a man who is more likely to be found working in an inner-city soup kitchen than on the windswept plains of the West.

But while Giuliani is not Native American himself, his work reveals a deep appreciation for Indian culture and traditions. The Native American faces in his paintings are almost mesmerizing in their intensity, with solemn eyes that hint of mystery and richly textured details that reflect the traditional dress and artifacts of the tribe represented. Father Giuliani’s paintings draw the viewer into a world that is both familiar and unknown, blending two cultures and two spiritual traditions into one harmonious whole.

The key to understanding Giuliani’s work is that these are not just paintings, but icons. For centuries the Eastern Orthodox Church has viewed icons as windows to the divine, a way for worshipers to gain access to the spiritual realm. In his work Giuliani draws on the techniques and forms of Byzantine iconography, but reinterprets them in ways that reflect Native American culture and spirituality.

"Even though I’m not Native American, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the varied indigenous cultures of this land," says Giuliani. "Their understanding of the world of nature and of God, their emphasis on being caretakers rather than exploiters of the land—all that is wonderfully consonant with the best of Christian thought and tradition. In my work I try to celebrate a union of a common spiritual understanding, to show how a single mystery can be approached through diverse cultures."

THE STORY OF how an Italian-American priest came to become a painter of Native American icons is, not surprisingly, a circuitous one. Giuliani grew up in a home in Greenwich, Connecticut, that celebrated creativity and craftsmanship, with parents who loved music and art. Giuliani’s own artistic talents, however, eventually took a back seat to his spiritual call, and in 1960 he was ordained a priest. For nearly two decades, Giuliani worked as a high school and college teacher, until in 1977 he received permission from his bishop to found the Benedictine Grange, a small monastic community in rural Connecticut.

During all this time his interest in art was virtually forgotten, until a conversation with a friend on Easter morning in 1989 triggered an interest in icon painting. Giuliani enrolled in a course taught by a Russian master iconographer at the School of Sacred Art in New York’s Greenwich Village. There he learned the traditional techniques of Byzantine icon painting, including the labor-intensive process of preparing wood panels for painting and the complex canons that govern each aspect of the images, specifying how each figure is to be depicted and what colors are to be used.

But after a few months of study Giuliani had what he describes as a "eureka" moment. "I suddenly began to wonder what I was doing using traditional Byzantine aesthetics and forms, living as I do in North America in the late 20th century," he says. "Then the idea came to me of using the images of the continent’s original peoples in icons, as a way of celebrating the spiritual gifts they have given to the world."

Though Giuliani had long respected Indian traditions, he knew he needed a more thorough understanding of their culture before painting Native American icons. He began poring over photographs and books, searching for faces and patterns to feature in his paintings. Icon painting quickly became a consuming passion for the priest, who produced 24 icons in the space of just 10 months.

Since then Giuliani has continued to paint icons, expanding his knowledge of Indian culture through a number of trips to the Northwest and Southwest. His work has been exhibited at a number of sites, including the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, and he has been commissioned to paint icons for churches throughout the country.

As his work has become better known, Giuliani admits to at first feeling a bit apprehensive about the Indian response, worrying that some Indians might dismiss the icons as simply another example of American colonization of native culture. "Instead I’ve been overjoyed to get many cards and letters from Christian Indians across the country, saying how much it means to them to see their faces and traditions portrayed as holy," he says.

Marlon Leneaugh, a Lakota who serves as director of the Rosebud Educational Society on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, agrees that Giuliani’s icons strike a responsive chord with many Native Americans. "For a long time it was as if you could either be Catholic or Lakota, but not both," he says. "Father John’s icons help bridge that gap. They say that we have a right to bring our culture, values, and spirituality into the church."

GIULIANI’S ICON PAINTING is only part of his daily work. The Benedictine Grange where he lives in southwestern Connecticut serves as a center for many activities and missions. Each Sunday about 200 people gather with Giuliani in the Grange’s pre-Civil War barn to celebrate Mass, and the community is active in ministries that include an AIDS hospice, Nicaraguan outreach, and prison ministry.

In addition, Giuliani is the founder and director of an ecumenical soup kitchen in inner-city Norwalk, Connecticut. The Good Shepherd House of Hospitality serves 150 people daily, with much of the work done by dozens of volunteers. "The Good Shepherd House expresses physical hospitality, just as the Grange is a place for spiritual hospitality," says Giuliani.

And whenever possible, Giuliani paints. Before picking up a paintbrush he uses contemplative prayer to quiet and ground himself, believing that his task is to welcome the image into existence. Some icons take months of work; others are completed in a few weeks. All are done in acrylic paint on wood panels that have been "gessoed" in the traditional iconic style—a process in which the wood is covered with several layers of a mixture of powdered chalk and glue.

The images themselves reflect a variety of Indian tribes, including Lakota, Hopi, Cheyenne, and Navajo. While the images are more naturalistic than those of traditional icons, they retain a similar air of formal dignity. The figures are clothed in traditional dress appropriate to each tribe, and often incorporate Christian symbols reinterpreted in Indian forms. In "Lakota Annunciation," for example, the spirit of God comes to a young Lakota woman in the form of a falcon, a bird considered holy by many tribes.

Giuliani—whose only other income is alms from the church at the Grange—uses the money from the sale of the icons to support his other ministries and to give him funds to travel. His larger icons typically sell for $5,000, while smaller pieces go for $1,500 to $2,000. Prints are available for about $10. "I’ve also virtually given many of them away," he says. "My parents were so generous in giving their resources to everyone, and I try to follow their example as much as I can. I live very simply and I don’t need a lot of money."

For Giuliani, riches come instead from a life of prayer and service, a wide network of friends, and painting that seeks to illuminate the sacred presence in diverse cultures. "An icon is an invitation," he says. "It can be a true mediational presence, a means to move into the mystery of the sacred. I would like my icons to be seen as Alice’s looking glass, mirrors that allow both reflection and entrance into the transcendent—the sacred that exists in us all."

Where to Find Giuliani's Icons

Father Giuliani's work can be viewed at the Prairie Edge Gallery, located at 6th and Main Streets in Rapid City, South Dakota (call 1-800-541-2388 for information).

From mid-August to late-September, an exhibit of Giuliani's icons will be on display at Light of the World, a gallery run by the Divine Word Missionaries at 1835 Waukegan Road in Chicago. Phone (847) 272-7600 for information.

Notecards and posters of Father Giuliani's work are available from Bridge Building Images, Box 1048, Burlington, VT 05402; 1-800-325-6263.

Lori Erickson is a free-lance writer from Iowa City, Iowa.

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