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Bible and Art

Introducing the Contributors to “The Bible and Violence” – Barbara Thiede, Holly Morse and Adriaan van Klinken

Happy New Year! Year 2023 will be a busy year for The Bible & Violence Project. Today we introduce three more contributors. Each of them demonstrates why this project is relevant and important, and why research-based activism matters. We are happy to introduce Barbara ThiedeHolly Morse, and Adriaan van Klinken. (Reading about these three contributors in turn, we think they should meet!).

Barbara Thiede is an ordained Rabbi and Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at the UNCC (University of North Carolina Charlotte) Department of Religious Studies in the USA. Her work focuses primarily on the structures of hegemonic masculinity and the performance of masculinities in biblical texts. She is the author of Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities (Routledge, 2022) and Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men (Routledge Focus, 2022). She is currently working on her third book (under contract with Bloomsbury T&T Clark), which focuses on the biblical deity’s performance of masculinity in the Books of Samuel. She will be writing the chapter on Violence in the David Story and co-authoring, together with Johanna Stiebert, a chapter on the Ethics of Citing Violent Scholars.

I argue in my second monograph, Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men, that David’s capacity for sexualized violence is not only tremendous but very much valorized in and by the text; and it is exactly this capacity, which (in terms of the ideological orientation of the text) makes him an ideal king. But David does not act alone (rapists don’t). Hegemonic masculinity and the structures that support and promote it make rape culture possible and make it thrive. Male-male relationships of all kinds in the David story undergird and support sexual violence. Servants, messengers, courtiers, soldiers, generals, advisors – these men collude and participate in, condone, and witness sexual violence throughout the narrative. Rape is not so much a topic as a tool – and it is used against men as well as women. If we cannot call out the violence the Hebrew Bible authorizes, we give our tacit consent to the rape culture it presents and by extension, to the rape cultures it legitimates and which we ourselves inhabit.

For the same reason, I cannot ignore an ugly reality in academia: that there are scholars who commit violence through sexual harassment, bullying, and rape; scholars who have participated in technology-based gendered violence, and who have preyed on children. These are scholars whose presence in our midst confronts us with fundamental questions about the nature of our guild. Hegemonic masculine systems have protected such scholars from censure and criminal conviction for decades. Together with Johanna Stiebert, we want to ask: do our ethics permit us to cite the work of violent predators?

We cannot afford apathy, indifference, or denial; we cannot afford to collude or condone. It is our task to resist violent texts and violent authors – especially when these are given authority and power to harm and abuse. Doing so might provide some healing and hope. And: it is an ethical imperative.

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Holly Morse is Senior Lecturer in Bible, Gender and Culture at the University of Manchester in the UK and specialises in the Hebrew Bible and gender-based violence, as well as in biblical reception – especially visual and popular cultures. She also has broader interdisciplinary research interests in knowledge, magical and spiritual activism, heresy, and gender. Holly is author of Encountering Eve’s Afterlives: A New Reception Critical Approach to Genesis 2-4 (Oxford University Press, 2020). In this book, she seeks to destabilise the persistently pessimistic framing of Eve by engaging with marginal, and even heretical, interpretations which focus on more positive aspects of the first woman’s character. Holly has also written on biblical literature, gender, feminist activism, trauma, abuse, and the visual arts and popular culture. Holly is co-founder of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre, with Dr Kirsi Cobb (Cliff College). Together they are now working on an AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded research network around the topic Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age.To date they have hosted one colloquium focused on coercive control, with another on hypermasculinity due to take place in April 2023. Holly is writing on Gender-Based Violence in Visual Art on the Bible.  

Survivors and victims of gender-based violence frequently attest to feeling that they have been left voiceless and silenced, as a consequence of the actions of their attackers, but also of the social systems which fail to provide them with support and with justice (see Jan Jordan Silencing Rape, Silencing Women, 2012). This theme of voicelessness is present, too, in the troubling texts of terror in the Hebrew Bible – the narratives of Dinah and the Levite’s pilegesh, or the law of the nameless, captive, non-Israelite “brides” of Deuteronomy 21; these texts and many more feature characters who are denied a voice in the wake of brutal attacks on their bodies and on their personhood. A growing field of powerful scholarship within biblical studies acknowledges and explores the significance of witnessing the silent trauma of these accounts across the centuries. It is into this conversation that I hope my paper for the Bible and Violence project will speak, but this time focusing on a different aspect of witness and gender-based violence – visibility. 

Despite the fact that 1 in 3 women globally are subject to physical and/or sexual violence, the harrowing frequency of these offences is met with a woeful rate of conviction rendering the majority of gender-based violence against women and girls invisible, hidden crimes. This lack of visibility of the abuse of women is further compounded by the fact that around 90% of rapes are committed by acquaintances of the victims, and often within the broader context of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. In many ways, the Hebrew Bible too elides violence against women. With no specific language for rape, with laws that seem to accommodate abuse of female persons, and with accounts of what likely describe violent, sexual attacks on women mired in euphemism and narratorial disinterest, trying to render biblical survivors and victims of gender-based violence visible to the reader is often a challenge. In my paper for this project, I want to think about how visual art can help or hinder us in acts of witness to the experiences of biblical women at the hands of their abusers, and in turn offer opportunity to think further about tools for moral and ethical readings of ancient authoritative texts in our contemporary world.


Adriaan van Klinken is Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds, where he also serves as Director of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. He also is Extraordinary Professor in the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Adriaan’s research focuses on religion, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Africa. His books include Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism and Arts of Resistance in Africa (2019); with Ezra Chitando, Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa (2021); and with Johanna Stiebert, Sebyala Brian and Fredrick Hudson, Sacred Queer Stories: Ugandan LGBTQ+ Refugee Lives and the Bible (2021). 

Sebyala Brian (left), Adriaan van Klinken (centre) and Fredrick Hudson

In recent years, I’ve had the privilege to work, together with my colleague Johanna Stiebert, with a community of LGBTQ+ refugees based in Kenya. Most of the refugees originate from Uganda and left that country in the aftermath of its infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which created a strong social, political and religious culture of queer-phobia. They sought safety in Kenya, only to discover that this country, too, is largely hostile towards sexual and gender minorities. 

From my first encounter with this community, back in 2015, what struck me was their faith, and the strength and comfort this gave them in the struggle of their everyday lives. As I was invited to prayer and worship meetings at the shelter run by a community-based organisation, called The Nature Network, I observed first-hand how these LGBTQ+ refugees created a space where they affirmed each other, shared their faith, read and talked about the Bible, and joyfully expressed their belief in God. 

Together with two of the leaders of the Nature Network, Sebyala Brian and Fredrick Hudson, Johanna and I developed the Sacred Queer Stories project. Here, we aimed to explore the intersections of bible stories and the life stories of Ugandan LGBTQ+ refugees. More specifically, we examined the potential of reclaiming the Bible and using it to signify the queer lives of LGBTQ+ refugees in East Africa. This is important because, in the words of one of our participants, “The Bible is often used against us, but in this project we reclaim it as a book that affirms and empowers us.” The results of the project were published in our jointly authored book, Sacred Queer Stories: Ugandan LGBTQ+ Refugee Lives and the Bible.

In our contribution to the Bible and Violence project, we will build on our collaborative work with the community of LGBTQ+ refugees, to explore the strategies of creative and contextual bible reading that we developed in order to read the Bible against queer-phobic violence. We will show how the Bible, on the one hand serves to reinforce existing power structures and social inequalities, but on the other hand can also be used for purposes of community empowerment and social transformation. Indeed, we put our Sacred Queer Stories project in the well-established queer tradition of ‘taking back the Word’, not allowing the Bible to be owned by homophobic preachers and politicians, but to reclaim it in a quest for liberation and freedom. As a case in point, we will discuss the work we did around the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, which in our project was re-narrated and dramatized in the contemporary context under the title “Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den”. 

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Q&A with David Tombs about his new book – available open access

There is a new book in our Routledge Focus series, ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’ and this one is available from today and open access.

The author is David Tombs and the book’s title is The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross (London: Routledge, 2023). 

For the open access ebook DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429289750 

For further information and the hardback: www.routledge.com/9780367257651

Tell us about yourself. How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?

When I was an undergraduate studying Philosophy and Theology I picked up a copy of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s book A Theology of Liberation in Blackwell’s bookshop in OxfordIt is a classic work, but I had no real idea of that when I first looked at it. Instead, I was drawn to the distinctive cover image. I had visited Peru the previous summer and the cover captured what I had seen there in two readily recognisable scenes. One scene showed a poor community, the other showed a row of military police. It was not what I expected from a theology book. 

I started reading the work of Gutiérrez and then the works by other liberation theologians in the library. I was struck by the passion and compassion they brought to their work and their belief that theology can make a radical difference when it is rooted in what they called ‘an option’ for the oppressed. Their concern for poverty and injustice guided a liberative approach to theological and biblical work. From then on, I have been interested in how faith and theology can make a difference, and how reading the Bible from a specific context can offer new insights into the text. In my theological work in the UK, then in Ireland, and now in New Zealand, I continue to seek insights from liberation and contextual theologies for my thinking and writing.

The specific prompt for the book dates back to the 1990s. I was a PhD student at Heythrop College, London, and working on liberation theology and Christology. Following a visit to El Salvador in the summer of 1996, I read a story of a sexualised execution that occurred during the war in the 1980s. It was a very confronting testimony and I wanted to understand more. First I asked myself why it had happened. Then I asked why it did not get more attention.  Even a theologian as insightful and courageous as Jon Sobrino who had worked in El Salvador for many years seemed to be silent on this type of violence. So I read more about sexualised violence during torture and state terror in Latin America. Then I  started to explore the relevance of this to crucifixion. I first published on this in the article ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse’ (1999) (see here). The book has been an opportunity to revisit this and develop the argument further. 

Last year, I co-edited the book When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (SCM 2021) with Jayme Reaves and Rocío Figueroa. Scholars from Australia, the Bahamas, Botswana, Indonesia, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and the USA, explored implications of acknowledging Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. It was an opportunity to work with a fantastic group of colleagues and a really inspirational learning experience. It helped me see more clearly what a book like The Crucifixion of Jesus could support this area of research. 

What are the key arguments of your book?

The book investigates some disturbing elements of crucifixion that have only recently started to get attention. It starts with the Salvadoran execution I just mentioned and the impact this had on me. I then turn in Chapter 1 to the strippings of Jesus. These include the multiple strippings by the cohort of soldiers in Pilate’s palace (the praetorium) recorded by Mark and Matthew. In addition, there is the stripping of Jesus at the cross recorded by all four gospels. The strippings and the enforced nakedness of crucifixion are well attested in the gospels, and I would argue that the facts of these alone  are compelling reasons for acknowledging that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse. 

I then ask whether Jesus might have experienced other forms of sexualised violence beyond the strippings. The evidence for further violence is less direct, and the answers less clear-cut than the strippings, but the questions are worth asking. Forced stripping often leads to further violence and Chapter 2 investigates whether there might be more to the mocking than is usually assumed. I look at what might be learnt from the rape, murder, and dismemberment of the Levite’s wife in Judges 19, and also at why the mockery that followed the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 CE might be relevant to the mockery of Jesus.

Chapter 3 turns to the horror and shame associated with crucifixion. It looks at passages by the Roman writer Seneca that suggest sexualised violations during crucifixion. This is explored with attention to ancient impalement practices and the common belief that the Romans used crucifixions but not impalement. I think the reality might have been more complicated, but the evidence is not easy to interpret. It  requires more research by specialists and I hope to encourage this work by others. Although Jesus’ experience of strippings and enforced nudity provide strong reasons for seeing him as a victim of sexual abuse, we don’t know—and will probably never know—whether there were further forms of sexualised violence in the mocking and crucifixion.

Chapter 4  discusses why this sort of research matters and what positive value might come from it. These are questions that I have often been asked;  I discuss them with attention to Christian belief in resurrection. I believe that recognising Jesus’ experience can help churches address victim-blaming and the perceived stigma associated sexual violence. For example, it can strengthen positive messages to survivors like ‘You are not alone’ and ‘You are not to blame’. Of course, churches should not need the experience of Jesus to prompt them to respond well to survivors. But in my experience it can be an effective way to open up a deeper conversation on how churches can do better.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I am a theologian not a biblical scholar, so whilst I found the biblical discussion very interesting, and I hope it will be of interest to others, I also hope that some readers will be interested in the theological issues the book raises. For example, how this reading might offer a  better understanding of Jesus as fully human and vulnerable, or how it might challenge the assumption that the cross must be good. Sobrino speaks of ‘taking victims down from the cross’. I hope the book will encourage readers in churches to think about how recognition of Jesus’ experience might guide a better response to sexual violence. 

Please give us a quotation that captures something significant about your book and will make readers want to read the rest.

“This has been a difficult book to write, and it will almost certainly be a difficult book to read. But the book is driven by the conviction that the biblical text matters. It is also shaped by the belief that recognising and confronting violence—especially sexual violence—matters’”(p. 2).

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Christmas, Mary, and the new Nationality and Borders Bill

Today’s post is by Tasia Scrutton, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Leeds. Tasia’s research lies in the intersection between religion and human experience, including experiences of mental illness, bereavement, and displacement. Her most recent book, Christianity and depression: interpretation, meaning, and the shaping of experience came out with SCM Press in 2020 and you can find out more about it here. Outside of her academic work, she enjoys walking her dog Lola. She also volunteers with an asylum seeker charity, BEACON, whose work you can find out more about here: Bradford Ecumenical Asylum Concern (beaconbradford.org)   

Kelly Latimore, Our Lady of the Journey (jpg purchased from the artist and reproduced with kind permission: kellylatimoreicons.com)

Kelly Latimore’s icon, Our Lady of the Journey, depicts the episode early in Matthew’s Gospel in which Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus flee to Egypt to escape the persecution of an oppressive government (Matthew 2:13-23). While many paintings have depicted the ‘Flight into Egypt’ in relation to the plight of refugees, one of the most striking features of this icon for me is the way it highlights the experience of Mary, and especially her fear.

In this respect the icon is realistic, since the fear of asylum seekers who are women and girls is very real, and very well-founded. Women who attempt to flee their country of origin in hope of better, safer prospects are at risk from the same very-real threats to life that men experience, as was devastatingly laid bare with the recent Channel crossing drownings (see here). But women who flee their countries of origin are also vulnerable to additional dangers: to rape, to sexual trafficking, and to other forms of sexual exploitation, both on their journey, and in the place where they seek refugee status. In the words of one woman, who fled from Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal:

“I came to the UK because I was raped, beaten and locked up in my country because of my sexuality. When I arrived, I didn’t know where to go or what to do and I had never heard of asylum. I thought I was coming to a country where I would be accepted for who I am but that was not the case.

Being a refugee in a new country, you don’t trust people easily, especially if you have been through so much hatred, so much abuse. It took me a while to trust people who told me about the asylum process. When I applied, it was a very long journey of stress and struggle. The Home Office said they didn’t believe my story and refused my asylum claim. I was depressed and had nowhere to go for support. I had to sleep on the bus and the only way to survive was to have sex to get food. It was traumatic and degrading.” 

(‘Anna’, quoted in Women for Refugee Women : Legal Opinion: The Nationality and Borders Bill will harm women)

Detail from Kelly Latimore’s Our Lady of the Journey

In addition to the sexual violence and exploitation they face, women are also more likely to be travelling with children, whose presence makes the journey harder, and the stakes even higher – since women asylum seekers are risking not only their own lives, but also the lives of their children. And especially if the children are girls, they too are vulnerable to violence and hardship, including sexual violence and exploitation.

These dangers might make one wonder, why would any woman take these terrible risks? The answer, of course, as ‘Anna’s’ story highlights, is that the things that make women risk all these things are yet more terrible and fearful still.   

The way in which female asylum seekers are especially vulnerable – what we might call the ‘gendered aspect’ of asylum seeking – makes the UK government’s Nationality and Border Bill, passed by the House of Commons last week, all the more cruel and unjust. Briefly, the Bill allows the government to deprive a person of citizenship, without even notifying them. This can be done, either if the Home Office does not have the person’s contact details, or if notifying them is ‘not reasonably practical’ (see here).

In addition, the same Bill criminalises anyone taking part in the rescue missions in the English Channel. To put this another way, it means that the people we regard as heroes for helping persecuted people escape torture and death (for example, people who smuggled Jewish children to the UK during the Nazi regime), would be regarded as criminals in the UK, according to the new law.

Although it doesn’t explicitly target women, the new Bill is, in practice, misogynistic, since it will disadvantage women and girls especially. This is for a number of reasons, but I will highlight just three here. First, the new Bill will introduce a ‘two-tier system’ that discriminates especially against asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via what the Home Office considers illegal means, such as in small boats. People coming from Afghanistan are among those asylum seekers especially likely to arrive in small boats – and women and girls from Afghanistan are highly likely to be fleeing, because of the newly-installed Taliban regime, which has, since the 2021 offensive, severely constrained women’s and girls’ movements, including access to education. In other words, the new Bill won’t discriminate against women explicitly and directly, but by virtue of discriminating against people who come via ‘illegal routes’ on small boats, it will effectively discriminate against people who are forced to flee from places such as Afghanistan, for gender-based reasons. 

Second, the new Bill will mean that there is a ‘heightened standard of proof’ expected of asylum seekers, and that cases will be considered at a more rapid rate (see here for the Executive Summary).  But women and girls who have frequently experienced rape and other forms of sexual torture are often traumatised to the extent that they do not have a coherent narrative about what has happened to them. Narratives of trauma often emerge only long after the traumatic event itself, because victims of sexual violence and exploitation experience guilt and shame, because being a victim of sexual violence is still a cause of stigma in many cultures, including our own. The asylum process is stacked against them. And asylum seekers are oftentimes interrogated without sensitivity about the violence and torture they have experienced.

Third, as human rights lawyers have pointed out, the new Bill’s clauses about modern slavery and trafficking will make it harder for women and girls who are victims of trafficking and modern slavery to be identified and protected. This is contrary to the UK’s obligations according to international law. In addition to that, the much swifter process that will lead a woman or girl to be deported may well mean that there is not enough time for trafficking claims to be determined (see here, for the Executive Summary).

I could go on about the other ways in which the new Nationality and Borders Bill will harm female asylum seekers, not just because they are asylum seekers, but (additionally) because they are women and girls. But those who are interested can read more about the reasons here.

So instead, I want to return to where we started – to the Bible – and provide just a few passages for reflection about the way the Scriptures encourage us to show solidarity with the oppressed, and hospitality to asylum seekers in particular. At the very end, I suggest four  ways in which we can help.

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21).

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).

You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 24:22).

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and she will repay her for her deed (Proverbs 19:17).

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute (Psalm 82:3).

 Learn to do good;
 Seek justice,
 Rescue the oppressed,
 Defend the orphan,
 Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7: 9-10)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:34-40)

Four ways you can help:

  1. Join, donate, or volunteer for Women for Refugee Women: Women for Refugee Women
  2. If you are in the UK, write to your MP and oppose the Nationality and Borders Bill. You can find out who your MP is, and how to write to them, here: Find out who your MP is / mySociety . If you’re stuck for what to write, you can copy or adapt the template here: #antirefugeebill (asylummatters.org)
  3. Sign up to receive campaigning news and opportunities from Asylum MattersHome | Asylum Matters
  4. Encourage your church and any other organisations with which you may be involved to join the Together with Refugees coalition: Join the coalition – Together With Refugees
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Writing Gender Justice: Alternative Icons of Women

Today’s post is an interview with Hilary Willett (she/her) who fights for gender justice by writing icons and reclaiming the lives of biblical women.

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Hilary. I’m from Christchurch, New Zealand and currently living in Auckland. I’m studying to be an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Auckland.

What have you been doing and what are you working on?

I completed a Masters of Theology in 2018, looking at feminism and the Bible. This was a pivotal point in my faith journey. Before doing this thesis, I had believed that both Christians and biblical texts had always generally been fairly supportive of women in positions of leadership. My thesis disrupted this belief and I began to realise the extent to which the Christian church has suppressed or marginalised female leadership.

After finishing my thesis, I felt a call to leadership in the Anglican Church. In 2019, I was discerned to begin training for ordination. I’m now doing a second Masters in Theology, part-time, to aid my leadership formation. In 2020, I did a course on writing icons with Libby Brookbanks, and I discovered that I loved it. So, in my spare time, I’ve been writing icons of women and have recently started selling them and accepting commissions.

Which aspects of your work might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?

Icons are considered sacred images and used in devotional ways. They are also considered to be a way of communicating orthodox theology, so instead of being “painted” they are written. Every part of an icon has theological significance: the colours used, the gestures of the subject, the gold-leaf/gilding, even the primer used to prepare the surface that will be written on. Everything in an icon has a symbolic meaning.

Traditionally, however, only men are allowed to be iconographers. This means that men have been the only ones allowed to communicate theology about the women and men represented in icons. I feel uncomfortable with this, particularly the idea that in iconography women are only being written by men. So, I started to write icons of women.

How does your work connect to activism?

I came away from my thesis on feminism and Christianity acutely aware of just how many men write the theological narrative. This dominance prevents women from writing themselves and leads to significant theological bias. In icons, this is particularly noticeable. Women are often represented as white (even when the majority of saints depicted are not Caucasian) and delicate (rarely do women look strong or have strong gestures). Women are often dressed in white or have white head-coverings to symbolise their purity. It seems that writers of icons are very keen to uphold purity as a prime virtue in women, which then reinforces this value in individuals who use icons for prayer.

Complex biblical women, such as Jael, Hagar, Delilah, or the woman who bled for twelve years, are very rarely recorded as icons. The few icons I found of the “bleeding woman” (Matt 9:20-22; Mark 5: 25-34; Luke 8:43-38), for example, depicted her as grovelling on her knees before Christ. This representation makes this woman one-dimensional. There is little visual reference in the icon to this woman’s faith or her courage in approaching Christ, despite the customary purity taboos forbidding a woman in her position from touching a rabbi. Her active defiance of the rules and her determination to be healed demonstrate strength and conviction, but these qualities are not represented visually in the bleeding woman’s icon. This is in stark contrast to say, Peter or Paul who, despite their failings, are regularly and reliably represented in icons. They are depicted as standing upright and righteous and are often depicted in a variety of colours. For instance, in a traditional Orthodox church, there is a section of the church called the “Deisis” (prayer/supplication). Peter and Paul are almost always a part of this prominent section of the church. They are written in full colour, venerated as complex and well-rounded individuals. Mary, the pure, is often the only female regularly included in this important section of the church.

I try to correct this bias by writing women differently. I spend some time researching alternative narratives, sometimes going very much against traditional theological presentations of certain women. In writing icons, I include ‘difficult’ characters and characters that are not in scripture or “sainted” by the Church. I write women with different skin tones, different personalities, and different body shapes. I tend to avoid using white clothes for women, unless it is absolutely necessary. One occasion where I did find this necessary, was with Phoebe, the deacon. Her white alb was a part of her official, ceremonial robes that deacons wore in the church. It is necessary for a deacon to wear an alb in their leadership role. In this case, Phoebe’s white clothes felt to be more about her leadership role in the church, which I wanted to highlight, rather than about her purity as a woman.

Phoebe, the Deacon

I also try to bring out the complexity of the women who have been venerated as pure and the humanity of the women who have been marginalised. As noted above, for instance, the ‘bleeding woman’ is usually depicted grovelling before Christ. When I re-wrote her, however, she is standing upright. Christ was not in the icon, as I wanted her to stand in her own right. I re-named her the “Daughter of Faith”.

Daughter of Faith (the woman who bled for 12 years)

I try to find something commendable in each of the women I write, with the view that women are worthy of respect, even if they are complex characters and don’t live up to patriarchal stereotypes. Women do not all need to be the purest of the pure, or the fem-est of the fem, to be admirable.

Finally, I enjoy writing women in contexts that are meaningful to the person who will use the icon. When I wrote Mary as an icon, I placed her in Taranaki (Aotearoa New Zealand) because that where the person who was receiving the icon was from. It felt important that the caring presence of Mary was placed in this own person’s context, making it meaningful and relevant to the person using the icon.

Mary, Mother of God

What has been the response to your icons?

To be honest, it has been overwhelmingly positive; it really has been lovely to see how many people are connecting with these images. Occasionally, some people haven’t understood exactly what an icon is and wonder why I don’t just paint landscapes, but it has been fun explaining this to them. One thing I often try to do is explain the symbolic features of any new icon I write. I think this has helped with the response, as it gives people the tools to “read” exactly what I am “writing”. It has meant that even people who have not been all that interested in icons in the past, are really keen and interested now. It has been a great experience!

Find more of Hilary’s icons at Lumen Icons: https://lumenicons.tarotpoetry.nz/?fbclid=IwAR0IoK0FX-4No_qWeeDlUDHpv8YqUOUH_9Nbvb-64max8SIf–0ZS9ZkmN8

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