Marianist priest Johann Roten points out detail in a John Solowianiuk piece called "Mother of God of Dayton."

Exhibit displays
images of Mary
at Chaminade

Isle culture blends with Catholic
traditions during this special month

The carved wooden figure of a woman with the sculptured hairstyle and facial tattoos of the Senofu tribe in West Africa was the focal point of a vespers service at Hawaii's Catholic university last weekend.

Priests, nuns, Chaminade University faculty and staff, and invited guests joined in prayers and songs, with a Hawaiian touch added by chanters John Lake and Franklyn Pao.

Exotic though the context, it was a Catholic celebration venerating Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The occasion was the opening of a folk art exhibit that brings a variety of images of Mary to Hawaii, including the African carving by contemporary Ivory Coast artist Benjamin Ngabe. The collection of 35 pieces was brought here by Chaminade and the Society of Mary, the religious order of priests and brothers that founded the university.

The art is on loan from the Marian Library at the University of Dayton in Ohio, also a Marianist institution. The exhibit at Chaminade's Sullivan Library will be open free through June 5 during regular library hours.

Throughout history, artists have followed three themes in depicting Jesus' mother, the May 2 gathering was told by the Rev. Johann Roten, a Marian authority from the University of Dayton. "The most typical representation is her stance with open arms ... displaying availability, our lady of openness," Roten said in a brief lecture.

Art patrons Berni Gaskell, left, and Gaby Lourdes Alvarez-Hanna investigate what is behind this two-sided 13th-century illumination on papyrus from Switzerland called "Mary-Church." The exhibition featuring Mary is at Chaminade University.

"The second theme is our lady of tenderness, the intimacy and closeness between mother and child.

"And thirdly is our lady of the way, pointing the way to Jesus" and Mary's pointing finger is a feature of many ancient icons.

"This is art that tells us there is an essential way to live our spiritual life," Roten said. "We accept, we make ourselves available to God. We cherish our contact with God. We go on to witness what the Word of God says."

The oldest known image of Mary is a third-century icon in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, said Roten.

The director of the International Marian Research Institute in Dayton, Roten has appeared as a Marian expert on the PBS "Religion and Ethics" show and is often used as a source for television, newspaper and magazine stories.

Besides its role as archives of written material and a Marian art collection, of which the local exhibition is a small sample, the institute offers a doctoral program in theology.

"We conducted a recent worldwide survey on how young people react to Mary," the Swiss-born scholar said. Non-Catholics and Catholics were among the 6,000 youths in 12 countries surveyed. "The most cherished image is of Mary as mother; the affection and security that imparts was important to youth. Secondly, they expressed admiration of Mary as a strong woman, as queen. Even if people had difficulties with certain norms of the church, such as its stand on sexual relationships, they would still relate to Mary."

Marian art evolved from the paintings and sculptures depicting biblical themes that proliferated in early centuries of Christianity. "In the Middle Ages, people needed images to fix the message; most of them could not read."

It's not so different in the 21st century. "We are an academic institution, with books back to the 15th century," Roten said, "but those are ideas in the abstract. We began this exhibit as an outreach, to respond to the mental structure of people that is essentially visual. There are so many ways of talking about Mary. This is a more simple way."

Some of the visions of Mary on view in Henry Hall on the Chaminade campus are these:

>> A Polish iconographer visualized Mary with nuclear weaponry at her shoulder balanced by a dove of peace in a carving commemorating the Dayton Accord, a fragile peace pact signed in the Ohio city in 1995 by Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian factions after years of civil war.

>> A wooden statue of "Madonna Kannon" combines Mary and the Buddhist goddess of mercy, a melding that occurred when persecution by Japanese rulers drove 16th-century Catholic converts underground.

>> The Statue of Liberty nestles in Mary's robe and Ground Zero images surround her in a painting that is part of a "God Bless America" series by John Solowianiuk.

>> The oldest item in the show is a hand-lettered page from a 13th-century Swiss Mass book, with Mary drawn in gilt and vivid colors, illuminating the letter A of "Ave Maria."

>> From a 17th-century copy of "Madonna at the Moat" by German engraver Albrecht Durer to a contemporary glass collage in which pulsing electric rays remind the viewer of beer advertising art, the show affirms Roten's words, "There are so many different ways of talking about Mary."

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