Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Garibay, Emmanuel - VM - Rod Pattenden 2

Emmanuel Garibay: Home

The Sacred Ordinary

by Rod Pattenden

This is a startling image, more so because it comes from the Philippines, a country of 100 million people, who are mainly formed by traditional Roman Catholic devotion. This is an unexpected depiction of the Holy Family, an image which has been traditionally used to locate the divine within the domestic family unit, where relationships are worked out and children are born and raised. But this Holy Family does not carry the signs of richness and privilege, but of marginalisation and poverty. They are barely clothed and are not seated on a royal throne but on the back of a jeepney, the main public transport for the 20 million people of Metro Manilla. They look like the pictures we see in our newspapers of some of the 68 million people who are now currently homeless due to climate change, war and violence, the greatest movement of people in human history.

Another aspect for shock for its Filipino audience is that the Holy Family does not look of Spanish descent. After 400 years of colonial rule the families who still maintain the balance in the politics of the country trace their privilege and wealth to their links to colonial power. These figures in contrast look like ordinary folk; they are darker skinned locals, the kind who huddle against those regular typhoons under cardboard walls that have been scavenged around the industrial areas of Manilla. They live in the remnant packaging that helps transport the consumer products and clothing that we buy at Christmas. This family is the family of the ghetto, with little over their heads, little clothes to wear, and little to eat on their Christmas table.

What is most startling about this family is the dignity and respect with which they engage our eyes and seem to even reach out and bless us. This delicate child, who in vulnerability turns to notice us. The vulnerability found in this work is unsettling. This is a family in transit. They are travelling by night, with few possessions, like a refugee family escaping persecution and violence. They have left everything that gives them security behind and simply carry their faith and their dignity with them in who they are.

In the temporary shelter of the jeepney the parents have been rendered speechless, like the many parents who are unable to speak up to change things and give their children a better future. The child in contrast has been rendered with mouth. Unlike his parents he does not look away, but addresses the eyes of the viewer with compassion and also an element of challenge. It is then we notice the jar being carefully held in his hands. This is no traditional religious symbol of power or authority but a jar illuminated by the light of a fire fly. This is one of the favourite things in the Philippines to catch the eye of a small child. This is the unstoppable capacity of hope and wonder that keeps human community alive and energises actions for change. In contrast to the physical conditions of poverty, it is wonder that has not been extinguished, held safe in the hands of the Christ child!


Emmanuel Garibay, Tahanan (Home), 2005, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 147 cm.

Emmanuel Garibay (born 1962) is a leading artist from the Philippines who has a wide reputation having exhibited his work in Europe and the United States. His work explores the experience of those marginalised in his own country and is strongly informed by a theological critique of social power and politics. In 2011 the book Where God is: The Paintings of Emmanuel Garibay was published by OMSC (Overseas Ministries Study Center, in New Haven, CT, USA, bringing his work to wider audiences.

Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian and theologian from Australia. He has written widely on the arts and creativity and is currently minister of Adamstown Uniting Church where he has developed Adamstown Arts, a vibrant community arts program engaging faith, justice and creativity.

AUSTRALIAN BLOG – Rod Pattenden has been involved in the setting up of a new regular blog site that explores the interaction of the Arts with Theology in Australia. It publishes regular activities, reviews and project news. Join here:

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