One of the beautiful things about the Church is her universality – her appeal to people from all cultures and eras, and her significance and importance to them. The stories of the Church – the stories of Christ – and above all the stories central to the Gospel – fulfill the echos whispered in different ways in human traditions and legends, and fulfill the longing questions of our hearts. So while each culture is able to remain fully Christian and hold true to the meaning and teaching of each story, they are also able to take those stories and imagine them in culturally significant ways. Most notably, we appropriate the people and events of those stories to our own cultures by making them “look like us.” We envision Jesus and His family and disciples to fit our own ethnic background, and we layer the Church’s stories into the rhythms of our own cultural sense of time and emotion.
So in the parts of the Church heavily influenced by Europe, we see Jesus depicted as a white man, and we see the fasts and feasts of the Church, the focal stories, aligned with the seasonal changes of the Northern Hemisphere. The birth of Jesus, for example – the beginning of a new hope for humanity – comes at the Winter Solstice, as if by His birth He reverses the plunge into darkness and heralds the dawning light. Many of even our most traditional and spiritual Christmas songs focus on this aspect of the birth, something that makes singing them in the paradisaical Arizona winter somewhat odd… Likewise, His resurrection is celebrated in the height of spring, surrounded by all the natural reminders of new life.
Likewise, in other areas of the world, one can see different cultural influences on the artwork and life of the Church. This set of four paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, by an unknown artist from Japan, illustrates that in several ways.
Clockwise from top left: Madonna of the Cherry Blossoms, Madonna of the Bamboo Grove, Madonna of the Moon, Madonna of the Snow
Obviously a significant difference between these and Western Madonnas in that both Mary and Jesus are Japanese. It makes the motherhood of Mary, the humanity of the Word made flesh, more immediately and emotionally palpable to the people painting and praying with theses images; it allows them to feel close and connected to these people who, after all, are not just historical people but living members of the body of Christ.
Something else I learned about these paintings, and Japanese art in general, that I also found very fascinating was that the four seasons of the year are central to Japanese art and poetry. Back in the tenth and eleventh centuries, nature was seen as a powerful, frightening, and unpredictable force, and aristocratic poets began to simultaneously tame it and use it as a lens to understand human emotion (which was probably also a powerful and unpredictable force that they wished to tame and control more completely!). As one author put it, Japanese culture focused mainly not on nature itself, but on a “secondary nature” –
…not a direct apprehension or participation in the natural world but a culturally constructed view of the non-human realm as representative of inner feelings experienced through profound associations made with outer phenomena connected with the rotation of the seasons and cycles of the year that are meaningful for their symbolic and aesthetically oriented value. – Steven Heine, in a review of Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Art by Haruo Shirane
By placing Mary and Jesus within each of those four seasons, the artist not only signifies their presence with us at all times of the year, he or she also meditates on the presence of Jesus, the importance of the incarnation, the loving motherhood of Mary, through all the various emotions we undergo as humans. He is with us in the springtime when the cherry blossoms give us hope for renewal and revival; He is with us in the autumn when we watch the lonely moon in our own melancholy and withdrawal. The cultural patterns of the year are drawn up into the eternal promises of Christ; they are not obliterated by His presence, but glorified.