Italian artist Igor Scalisi Palminteri recently created a new art series titled Hagiographies. For this project, Palminteri purchased cheap Jesus and saint statuettes (and a framed painting) from the street markets of Palermo and transformed them into superheroes using acrylic paint. Jesus is thus reimaged as baby Superman, Robin, “Dash” the Incredible, Spider-Man, Captain America, and so on. And his parents and saint buddies are part of the superhero cast too: Mary is Catwoman and Elastigirl; Joseph is Superman and Mr. Incredible; Saint Anthony is Batman; Saint Rita is Wonder Woman and the Flash; and so on. For photos of these works, see here and here.
I think the artist meant these pieces to be more than just a playful exercise in recycling, but to provoke serious questions, like:
- How do people, be they real or fictional, gain pop icon status?
- What stories get canonized (either by church or culture), and why?
- Are we willing to recognize and worship Jesus as human, and not just superhuman?
- What is heroism, anyway? (What values do we use to define it?)
“Hagiography” means “the study of saints,” and that’s what Palminteri’s art series is: a visual study of the heroes of the Christian faith—how we characterize them, and how we tell the stories of their lives.
Comic book heroes often reflect the values of the day, embodying what we as a society yearn for and idolize. The original Superman, for example, was invented during the Great Depression, and comics scholar Roger Sabin says he stood for “the liberal idealism of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal”; he fought crooked businessmen, gangsters, and politicians and demolished rundown tenements. Captain America came out during World War II to stir patriotic fervor and aid in America’s military recruitment efforts; so did Wonder Woman, only she stands for female empowerment and other values associated with the feminist movement. Iron Man came out during the 1960s as a champion of technological innovation and weapon development, coinciding with the real-world nuclear arms race. And just last month, DC Comics announced that the Green Lantern is gay—a move that reflects the American public’s growing commitment to gay rights.
Beneath these surface characterizations, though, the superheroes share the same primary motivation and aim: the destruction of evil, the triumph of justice, the protection of all beings—and to achieve this end, they sacrificially put their own lives on the line. These values and goals are definitely shared by Jesus. Perhaps Palminteri was pointing out the similar storyline in both the Christian Bible and comic books. I don’t think he’s necessarily suggesting that the Bible is a fanciful work of fiction that merely reflects ancient cultural ideals and myths (he’s a self-professed Catholic), though perhaps you read his art that way; I think that instead he may be saying that Jesus is that real-life Hero who fulfills the longings of our hearts that we see expressed so vividly in the comics industry: We yearn to see evil defeated and justice served on a global scale. We yearn for a strong and faithful protector who will make us feel safe and at peace. Jesus will win these victories and fill these roles for us.
Paliminteri’s figurines bring two more questions to my mind: the question of image-making/storytelling, and of insignias.
First: In what ways am I guilty of letting my culture shape Jesus and his story? In what ways does my definition of good and evil change with the times? Just as the serial comic-book storylines evolve alongside cultural trends and history itself, the church is oftentimes guilty of adapting the Bible’s storyline to whatever values are mainstream at the time.
Second: What one symbol do we most associate with Jesus? If he were a superhero, what letter or image would be printed on his chest? Jesus’s logo is undoubtedly the cross—and think of how countercultural such a logo was and is. Jesus defeated evil not with physical strength or superpower or technology, but with submission; he absorbed evil into himself on the cross, to save the world from destruction. And this tool by which he was tortured and executed has become his most iconic symbol, because the cross means that humanity can now be reconciled to God, and we can smile at the fact that Jesus’s defeat there was not final.
Another Jesus logo is the Sacred Heart, which has similar associations as the cross, as it symbolizes his longsuffering love for humanity. Widespread in Catholic art, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is often depicted as flaming and bleeding, surrounded by a crown of thorns and surmounted with a cross; Jesus bears it proudly on his chest, and is usually shown opening up the top of his tunic to reveal it. In these statuettes, Paliminteri has painted over the Sacred Heart with the superhero logos, like the green lantern, the spider, the bat, or Captain America’s white star. Just as these logos represent the source of the superhero’s power, or describe who he is or what he stands for, so the cross and the Sacred Heart represent Jesus.
What do you guys think about the Hagiography pieces? Do you read a pro-Christian or anti-Christian meaning into them, or neither? Is it legitimate to conceive of Jesus as a superhero? In what ways does he parallel some of the most famous ones, and in what ways is he different? What about conceiving of Christian saints as superheroes?
P.S. Here’s a throwback to the Christian rock days of my youth (she writes with a chuckle):