How does gender inform understandings of Catholic saints? An art exhibit at the Pacific School of Religion is rethinking those understandings by playing with gender, furthering the idea that there are transgender Catholic saints.
“Queer Santas: Holy Violence” is Alma Lopez’s show that plays with gender in religious artwork and asks viewers to “reconsider our ideas of religion, beauty and gender,” according to Religion News Service.
Lopez compared these saints to LGBT people today because they refused to adhere to female gender norms imposed by their societies and faced severe violence as a result. The artist added:
” ‘In our community, we do endure so much because we believe in certain things and we know ourselves. So I wanted the Queer Santas to stand for that and start a discussion of how much we endure to be who we are and love who we want to love…
” ‘So it is really me painting their masculinity and their beauty through the story of the Santas,’ she said, using the Spanish word for female saints.”
The show features icons of St. Lucia, St. Liberata, and St. Wilgefortis, as well as mermaids from Mexico termed “sirenas” which trans girls have taken up as symbols. Each of the three saints is traditionally understood to exhibit male characteristics, like St. Liberata’s and St. Wilgefortis’ beards or St. Lucia’s (or Lucy’s) refusal to marry a man, which resulted in her eyes being gouged.
Pacific School of Religion professor Justin Tanis commented about Lopez’s depiction of the saints, saying:
” ‘I am natural, I am one of God’s people.’ And yet this is an image that many people would consider heretical because gender play is involved…All of these saints are women who took their own agency and stepped outside gender norms. In that sense, they were queer and violence was done to them for it.’ “
Lopez’s previous work has been controversial in the past, drawing Catholic protests for pieces like a semi-nude Virgin of Guadalupe. So far, the Pacific School of Religion exhibit is drawing only praise — and has drawn some into deep meditation and prayer, according to Tanis, who is also director of the Pacific School of Religion’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry.
In recent years, the highlighting of lesbian and gay saints has opened Catholic eyes to the reality that sexual orientation is a gift from God that has helped many attain holiness. Lopez’s art further adds gender identity, as the church grows in understanding and appreciation for the holy trans people in our world.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry