Monday, November 19, 2012

Father John Giuliani, Painter of Native American Icons

Lakota Victory Christ by Father John Giuliani

Father John Battista Giuliani (b. 1932), the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut.   He was an artistic child whose parents and teachers encouraged him to pursue his artistic interests, which propelled him as an adult to obtain an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts at New York's Pratt Institute.  Yet, in 1960 he gave up his pursuit of art to become a Catholic priest, a position in which he still serves today.  

Jesus and the Disciples by Father John Giuliani

After earning M.A. degrees in classical literature and art, theology and American Studies, Giuliani taught Latin, the Humanities and American Film for fifteen years at the Bridgeport Connecticut Diocesan Seminary, at Fairfield University and at Sacred Heart University.  In 1976 Father Giuliani embarked on a new pursuit, founding the Benedictine Grange, a small monastic community in West Redding, Connecticut where "he continues to pursue a variety of ministries flowing from the contemplative life" (Hillstream).  The Benedictine religious order is noted for their past efforts during the Middle Ages to preserve classical civilization, for their ongoing promotion of education and devotion to encouraging hospitality. 

Father Giuliani
In 1990 Giuliani once again took up painting and began a year-long study of Orthodox iconography with Russian icon master Vladislav Andreyev at the School of Sacred Art in Greenwich Village.  Having gleaned a working knowledge of the iconic process, he then struck out on his own artistic path and began painting modern icons with images of Native Americans as subjects.  Father Giuliani notes that "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" (Sojourners).  

Father Giuliani has also said that "as a Catholic priest and son of Italian immigrants I bear the religious and ethnic burden of ancestral crimes perpetrated on the first inhabitants of the Americas.  Many have been converted to Christianity, but in doing so some find it difficult to retain their indigenous culture.  My intent, therefore, in depicting Christian saints as Native Americans is to honor them and to acknowledge their original spiritual presence on this land.  It is this original Native American spirituality that I attempt to celebrate in rendering the beauty and excellence of their craft as well as the dignity of their persons" (The Amalia & Nicola Giuliani Foundation for Religion and the Arts).

Navajo Jesus and Children by Father John Giuliani

I find these paintings to be beautiful, deeply respectful and honoring of Native Americans and their culture.  I especially love the vibrant colors and the intricate detail of the clothing and textiles, as well as the peaceful, dignified gazes of the subjects.   Father Giuliani states that "It is [their indigenous culture] especially that I celebrate in rendering the beauty and excellence of their craft as well as the dignity of their persons" (Painting as Prayer: Interview with Father John Giuliani).  I think that he is accomplishing that goal in each icon.  

I also began to wonder how Native American Christians feel about Giuliani's depictions of them in his icons.  Judith Dupré quotes Father Giuliani as saying:

Lakota Trinity by Father John Giuliani
When the Lakota Sioux throughout the Dakotas, most of whom had been evangelized by Jesuit missionaries, first saw themselves depicted in my works as saints, they were ecstatic. Many of them contacted me, weeping even, and said, We have never before seen ourselves depicted as Mary, as Jesus, the saints. So the flood began. 
I met Bishop Charles Chaput of South Dakota whose mother is Potowatomi. He was totally supportive, and put me in touch with the Jesuits who were running a spiritual retreat in South Dakota. Father Hatcher asked me if I would paint a trinity because the Native Americans were having a hard time understanding, intellectually, the concept of the Trinity. They were visual people and if they could see the Trinity depicted, they would understand. I painted the Father as an aged wise man, and Jesus as the victorious warrior in his warrior jacket, and the Holy Spirit as a red-winged hawk, the sacred bird, and, in another painting, as an                                                      eagle, the most sacred bird.
Lori Erickson writes in Sojourners that "Marlon Leneaugh, a Lakota who serves as director of the Rosebud Educational Society on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, agrees that Giuliani’s icons strike a responsive chord with many Native Americans. 'For a long time it was as if you could either be Catholic or Lakota, but not both,' he says. 'Father John’s icons help bridge that gap. They say that we have a right to bring our culture, values, and spirituality into the church.'"

Father Giuliani has produced icons and paintings not only for the church in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, but also for the church of St. Dennis in Crow Agency, Montana, where in 1997 he created a series of paintings depicting Mary's relationship with Christ.  Sadly, vandals set fire to the church in 2006, damaging but not destroying the fourteen paintings.

Father Giuliani has produced icons not only of Native North Americans, but also of indigenous peoples from Central and South America.  One example is Joseph's Dream:

Joseph's Dream by Father John Giuliani

And then there are these two wonderful Andean Christ paintings:

Andean Christ Breaking Bread by Father John Giuliani

The Good Shepherd by Father John Giuliani

You can see more of his work here, herehere and here.  And be sure to read Judith Dupré's very insightful interview with Father Giuliani, which goes into detail about his artistic inspirations and his reflections on the the process of creating the icons themselves.  I don't know much about Giuliani's theology, or how it informs his artwork (Dupré's interview is probably the closest source I found for that).  I sense that he isn't an evangelical Christian and there would probably be many points of theological divergence between us (for example, this painting which depicts creation as the body of Christ).  However, his talent is God-given and ultimately I feel that he is conveying something in his paintings that is biblical in the sense of portraying Native Americans as deeply loved by Christ, and created in the image of God.  I believe that Father Giuliani's paintings bring out this divine image in Native Americans and shows that they (like all nations) are fully loved by God in Christ.  And because God's image in humanity includes the drive to create culture, depicting Native Americans in their traditional cultural trappings deepens this divine portrayal.  

Compassionate Christ by Father John Giuliani

However, Native American cultures have changed over time and it would be interesting to see modern-day indigenous peoples portrayed similarly by Father Giuliani, in part to highlight the plight of many of them in today's world.  


  1. Fr. John thank you for sharing your wonderful gifts with God's People wherever you meet them. My mother lived and worked in Greewich, CT, and attended St. John's on Atlantic Ave. from time-to-time. Your icon of the Seminole St. Joseph and Jesus struck a deep chord with me as a native Floridan. Thank you again for sharing your talents with all of us.
    Fr. Jim O'Nea
    US Army Chaplain
    Ft. Sill, Oklahoma the Heart of Native America

  2. Where is the print on the cover of March 2016 US Catholic?

    1. Hi Jerry - You can see it in the article in the issue you mentioned above:

  3. His paintings in Crow Agency were not destroyed, thank God. All suffered some smoke damage, and one was partially burned, but they are in good shape considering.

    1. JAB - Thanks for that correction. I've updated the post.

  4. It is just wonderful!!!! Thank you for honoring the natives of this blessed land.

  5. Brilliant use of iconography to depict the universal spiritual presence in all the world's different cultures. Evidenceof the Spirit working here through Fr John. Ted O. AUSTRALIA

  6. Una meraviglia! Rafforzano la fede cristiana nel vederla rappresentata con dipinti così belli, insoliti, perché fa capire meglio che Dio è ovunque! Farò altre ricerche su Padre Giuliani facendolo conoscere anche ad altri! Dio lo benedica! Grazie!