In 1989, I was an Affiliate Artist for the Virginia Museum, traveling around the state and giving workshops in collage. My last workshop was at Martinsville High School in southern Virginia. There, a 17-year-old named Aaron May cut out Michelangelo’s Pieta and glued it down on a Smithsonian Magazine reproduction of a painting of the Alamo. The image of Jesus, dead in his mother’s arms, surround by the battlefield, struck me deeply, especially as the mother of two sons. Aaron gave me permission to use his idea for a larger work.
I began painting “Mother, Behold Your Son” by translating Michelangelo’s marble statue into two dimensions. It took me twenty hours. I listened to Irish music and a song by Jon McCutcheon about English and German soldiers in World War I who stopped fighting one Christmas Eve to sing carols instead. I cried much of the time I painted. My tears were for the love of my sons, who must find their warrior way in a dangerous world. My tears were for all mothers who have lost their children to war. I can only imagine the loss of one of my children in combat. To see the body torn apart that I carried inside my body, whom I birthed with joy and pain, whose hurts and needs I attended to for two decades would feel worse than death itself. My tears were for the love in Michelangelo’s scultpure, made by a son who understood the depth of a mother’s bond. And my tears were for the miracle of Michelangelo’s accomplishment, contrasted with the horror of the fruits of fighting.
I collaged images from many wars around the Pieta. Mexican and Texan soldiers from the Spanish-American war surround Jesus and Mary. The men in helmets are GI’s watching the atom bomb being tested in the fifties. The Confederate soldier behind the barricade was killed in Spotsylvania, Virginia in May, 1864. Another young man lost his life in the Civil War’s siege of Petersburg, Virginia, also in 1864. The men on the right wall are Russian soldiers, fighting in the snow during World War II. The large figure with a rifle in the foreground came from a newspaper photo of Arab men shooting blindfolded prisoners in a firing squad. The stag’s skull represents the side of the warrior spirit that leaves death in its wake as opposed to the creative use of that focused, determined energy. The heap of crumpled bodies are Dutch soldiers from the Boer War in South Africa in the early 1900’s. I found this picture in a book about World War I. On the proceeding page was a photo of the young soldiers the day before the battle. They were smiling, robust and enthusiastic. After looking through fifteen photography books documenting wars, I was struck by the fact that dead soldiers look alike, no matter what the time or place.
The mourning Moslem women reinforce Mary’s presence and women’s loss of husbands and sons to war. Their bound nature reflects my feeling that women have allowed war to take their loved ones, instead of using the warrior spirit to forge a means of solving conflicts without the loss of unique and precious lives. The painting is a prayer to give me strength to create such a means, so that my children and all children will not know war. When we are serious about making a world that is safe for children, we will have heaven on earth.
Every time people choose to respond to conflict through physical force, I see Jesus beside them, pointing to another, largely untried way. For me, Jesus is the exemplary warrior. He tests his strength in the arena that has defied human mastery- the heart. The technological accomplishments of civilization far exceed our ability to transform hurt and hate into something other than more hurt and hate. When Jesus said to “Love Your Enemy” two thousand years ago, he articulated the way to break the cycle of pain. Those three words set a standard that is harder to achieve than going to the moon, sending instantaneous electrical messages around the world or harnessing the power of the atom. They are the most important words ever spoken: The key to the survival of the human race in the electronic, nuclear global village of the 21st century.