Last Sunday when I was at the Jubilarian Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, I had the opportunity to see the exhibit “Paintings on Silk” which currently is open to the public in the Memorial Hall of the National Shrine. I was immediately drawn to the paintings, especially the faces which appear to capture the mystery of the moment, seemingly fully present to the unfolding of Salvation history in which they have found themselves; they radiate a holiness that is the one and universal vocation.
Exquisite in detail
The artist, Manisha [her Baptismal name is Theresa] Winchell, a Catholic from Rajasthan, India takes a new look at paintings by Fra Angelico and the depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe bringing India’s vivid colors – see for example the oranges, blues and yellows in the wings of the angel in the Annunciation – and intricate decorations onto the silken canvas. Upon close inspection of these highly detailed decorations one discovers Scripture, in Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, thus giving the paintings an additional spiritual dimension. Manisha shared with me that as she painted Mary’s robes it made her feel as if she were there in each story in Mary’s life and the design of the robes taught her something about Mary. Marrying the exquisite detail of Indian saris and a prayer of praise, Mary’s response to the angel is written on the hem of her robe.
A lesson in inculturation
Gazing at the silk paintings I was reminded of what we mean by inculturation. Inculturation is the word that the Catholic Church uses to speak of how the seeds of the Gospel are planted in every culture. The Gospel then can be incorporated in a particular culture’s customs and traditions. It is obvious to the observer that Our Lady of Guadalupe and the paintings of Fra Angelico speak to somebody who did not grow up in our Western culture and are at the same time enriched by that culture’s contribution. In “The Bridegroom,” it is Indian culture that predominates as one is drawn to a striking image of Mary, clothed in traditional Rajasthani dress walking with her son, Jesus, clothed as a bridegroom. While at first it seems completely unfamiliar to the Western observer, the imagery certainly is not. This painting captures the universal dimension of Catholic spirituality.
Mary, teacher of love
In the ministry of evangelization, we talk a lot about how to celebrate the diversity of the church of Washington in a way that celebrates the universality of our faith. In Manisha’s paintings, she captures it in the faces of the Mary, Jesus and the characters of her work. Manisha’s hope for people who view the exhibit is that “their minds will be raised to Mary, and that they will grow close to her because Mary is a teacher of love.”
The exhibit runs through June 24. Do make plans to visit.