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Giuliani, John B. - VM - Meryl Doney

Father John B Giuliani: Compassionate Christ


By Meryl Doney

It is Easter and we are surrounded by images, from contemporary stations of the cross to the great works of the western cannon. They are familiar and – dare I say it – so familiar that they often fail to engage us with the amazing reality of the Easter events.

Here is a different Christ. We know him by his halo and by the marks in his hands. But he is not dressed nor does he look as we expect.

Compassionate Christ is by artist and priest, Father John Giuliani, who died in January this year. Born into a family of Italian immigrants in Connecticut USA he studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York until, inspired by Thomas Merton's writing, he left to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1960 and served for nearly two decades as a teacher and university chaplain, going on to found a contemplative Benedictine community. However, the call of art was strong and in 1990 he returned to painting and studied with Russian icon master Vladislav Andreyev (b. 1938). This was the year the USA was preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Stories of the violence and oppression suffered by the indigenous peoples of the Americas at the hands of the colonialists deeply affected Giuliani and profoundly changed his work. As an artist, priest, and person of Italian descent, he wanted to make his own personal reparation for the atrocities of the past. He began creating paintings of religious themes celebrating the lives and cultures of the indigenous peoples around him, resulting in a startling series of images.

Here for example are three archangels:

This is the holy family pictured as a Pueblo family:

Giuliani’s relationship to the icon tradition is interesting. Obviously, he is not working within the strict tenets of icon writing developed in the orthodox church. However, he is able to employ many of the powerful tropes of the tradition – the centrality of the figure and the direct gaze, the halo (though he does not usually use gold leaf) and the emblems for the figures, in his case the rich variety of objects drawn from the various cultures.

Truly ground-breaking is this image of the Trinity (The Lakota Trinity). A priest known to Giuliani was struggling to convey the church’s understanding of the Trinity to the Lakota people with whom he worked. The resultant series of paintings draws from indigenous American spirituality and culture, in this case Lakota. Jesus, cloaked in a traditional victory jacket, is watched over by an eagle with upswept wings representing the Holy Spirit and covered by God the Father depicted as a wise grandfather spirit, with long hair and battle headdress.

John Christman, editor of Emmanuel, American magazine of eucharistic spirituality, says, ‘The diffuse light, outstretched hands of the Father and Son, and visual punctuation of halos—in conjunction with their wise yet fierce facial expressions—convey deep unity among Father, Son, and Spirit. Both meditative and charged with potential energy, the painting succinctly and impressively answers the question, “Who is God for us?” God is the God of our ancestors, the God we know, and the God who will overcome the evils of this world.’

In this triumphant Easter image, Giuliani shows the resurrected Christ, wrapped in a Navajo chief blanket. It is open to show his pierced side. Below him is the victory drum painted with the circle of life. In Navaho ceremonies it sounds the victorious peace chant of the sacred pipe. Christ who brings peace through his cross has won victory over death and the promise of eternal life.



“Even though I’m not Native American, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the varied indigenous cultures of this land. 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.” (see more

Father John Giuliani studied art at Pratt Institute in New York and later was ordained a Catholic priest. He taught Latin, the Humanities, and American Film at the Bridgeport, Connecticut Diocesan Seminary, at Fairfield University (CT), and at Sacred Heart University (Fairfield, CT). He then founded, in 1977, the Benedictine Grange, a small monastic community in West Redding, CT. In 1990 Fr. Giuliani returned to painting and studied with Russian icon master Vladislav Andreyev (b. 1938). He was inspired by this experience to create iconic depictions of Native American peoples as Christian saints in an effort to honour them and to acknowledge their original spiritual presence in the Americas. Says gallery owner Rey Móntez (Móntez Gallery, near Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA), "These are the most sensitive and masterfully painted-on-linen images we have had in over two decades. The imagery will even soften the most hardened of hearts." Fr. Giuliani is the 2007 recipient of the Mother Teresa Award for Religious Art. In 2001 he was asked to create the banner for the annual Palio in Siena, Italy. His work has been exhibited at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the New Britain Museum of American Art (New Britain, CT), the Marian Institute in Dayton, Ohio, the Aldrich Museum (Ridgefield, CT), St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City, the Basilica of St. Mary (Minneapolis, MN) and Good Hands Gallery (Santa Fe, NM). Many of his works are in private collections throughout the USA.

Meryl Doney is a British independent fine art curator, specialising in presenting exhibitions in cathedrals, churches, festivals and other challenging spaces. She has curated over 40 exhibitions and performance pieces, including Moon Mirror by Rebecca Horne in St Paul’s Cathedral (London, UK) and Presence: Images of Christ for the Third Millennium, a series of thirteen different exhibitions in six different cathedrals involving 50 contemporary artists. Between 2006 and 2011 she was Director of Wallspace, a 'spiritual home for visual art' in All-Hallows-on-the-Wall church, in the City of London. In 2015 she was guest curator for CLEY 15, the North Norfolk open-submission exhibition at Cley-next-the-Sea.

ArtWay Visual Meditation Easter 2021