Queering Iconography: Why I Wrote And Painted Holy Women Icons

by Rev . Dr. Angela Yarber

As a scholar of Art and Religion, I have long known the power of images to evoke spiritual meaning, providing believers with a visual entry point into faith. As an ordained queer woman, I have also long known that much of iconography excludes anyone who looks and loves like me.

Though there are surely some women depicted in iconography in Orthodox Christianity, and a robust number of goddesses in Hindu iconography, I found myself at a loss when it came to positive, affirming, and empowering icons of women and queer saints across the vast spectrum of religious and spiritual traditions.

So about five years ago, I began a life-long project of subverting this virtually all-male sainthood by painting Holy Women Icons.

I wanted to give traditional iconography a folk feminist twist. Though there are certainly more to paint, nearly fifty women—many of whom are queer or allies—fill my most recent book, Holy Women Icons. I am a strong believer in the sentiment, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” It is for this reason that I am a preacher. It is for this reason that I earned a Ph.D. It is for this reason that I paint.

I do these things because of the many women and LGBTQ persons who have never seen a preacher who was one of them, a scholar who was one of them, or an icon that depicted them. I want queer women to be able to see reflections of their own holiness canonized in my brushstrokes, redeemed on canvas as worthwhile and beloved.

So, an array of women who lived in queer ways fill the pages of my book, their stories coming to life in the essays that accompany each icon. There’s artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, dancer Isadora Duncan, and writer Virginia Woolf, all women who explored the spirit through their artistic work and loved men and women, as well as the hallmark poet for all of lesbianism—our beloved Sappho.

Queer women have lived and continue to live holy lives that are revolutionary, prophetic, and bold.

Also filling the pages of Holy Women Icons are the queer feminist theological forerunners Mary Daly, author of revolutionary texts like Beyond God the Father and The Church and the Second Sex. Then there’s a sensual biblical dancer from the Song of Songs, the Shulamite, whose lover was, indeed, a woman. Painting and writing about these queer holy women is one way of redeeming and reclaiming a faith and spirituality that is often taken from queer people in the name of “right religion.”

Similarly, tremendous allies, such as Maya Angelou and Martha Graham also grace the pages of my book, dancing and reaching across my canvases in acts of grace and affirmation. And there are queer women and allies embodied in the many commissions I’ve painted in honor of ordinations, births, graduations, and other important life events.

Twenty of these holy women will find a home at the gallery of the Northstar LGBTQ Center in Winston-Salem from July through September, joined by my newest icon: Pauli Murray. Pauli Murray was a queer woman who lived in Durham, North Carolina. She was a civil rights attorney, coining the phrase “Jane Crow” to acknowledge the role of sexism in addition to racism in Jim Crow laws.

Above all, it is my hope that the icons and stories of these holy women will inspire you.

In the midst of the discrimination we encounter as queer people, in the face of faith communities that malign and exclude us, it is my sincere hope that Holy Women Icons will provide a balm, a glimmer into the deep and rich history of queer holy women that have stood for justice, danced for freedom, and loved unabashedly.

I hope they will inspire you to acknowledge the holiness dwelling within your own heart. Honor it. Invoke it. Live it.

More than that, it is my sincere hope that these inspiring women will embolden you to be an agent of revolutionary, inspirational, and courageous change in our world. May your heart be so filled with the beauty and pain of their stories that it seeps into your veins, limbs, and life in such a way that you will act to overturn systems of injustice and oppression, creating a world where all queer women—indeed, all of creation—may find the deep worth residing within.

For all ordering options, visit Parson’s Porch Publishing; Photo via author