Memorial Church commissions artist Janet McKenzie for signature painting

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Janet McKenzie's painting "Jesus of the People" on display in the sanctuary of the Memorial Church in 2013. Courtesy photo

In 2013, artist Janet McKenzie spoke at the Memorial Church as the William Belden Noble Lecturer about her powerful and affirming painting “Jesus of the People,” an intriguing portrayal of Jesus with feminine facial features and African-American skin tone.

McKenzie’s work and lecture made a lasting impression on Jonathan L. Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, so much so, that when it came time to choose the art for a new space in the church, the Vermont artist received the call.

“I've never been a fan of Christian iconography. The stained glass windows in so many cathedrals coupled with the hanging images of Christ typically reinforce the bias that whiteness and maleness represent the divine,” said Walton. “Janet McKenzie's work expands our imaginations.” 

The Memorial Church is undergoing a major renovation that will create new spaces, improve access and update climate controls and other systems inside the 84-year-old building. McKenzie’s commissioned painting is expected to be prominently displayed in a fresh space designed as part of the renovation for student gatherings, meetings, study and other functions in the church.

“As an artist committed to celebrating women and diversity within sacred art, I am humbled to have been commissioned to create a new painting for Memorial Church,” said McKenzie, whose work is widely collected and has appeared on several book and magazine covers. “I am especially looking forward to incorporating a strong maternal presence through Mary and Jesus who will be the centering force of the work.”

McKenzie was born and raised in New York City and now lives in northern Vermont. From her home studio near the Canadian border she creates works of Christian imagery that expand and challenge the visual traditions of sacred art. With the use of women and people of color in her paintings of Jesus, Mary and other Christian figures, McKenzie injects diversity of culture, race and gender into an iconography of religious art dominated by traditional images of males and light skin.

In her painting “The Holy Family,” Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus are African-American. In “Epiphany” the three Magi are women with Asian, African-American and white features.

“Jesus of the People” is one of McKenzie’s most recognized paintings. In 1999, the piece won first place in a competition to create a new image of Jesus for the Millennium, sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter. The model for the portrait was a black woman who she met near her home.

“She captures the many different colors, bodies, and textures of humanity to re-present sacred narratives,” Walton said. “By doing so, I believe her work captures ‘God's kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven.’” 

Renovation of the Memorial Church is expected to be completed early next year. The painting is expected to be displayed in an area of the lower level of the church that for much of the 1950s and 1960s was one of the few places in the Yard Radcliffe students could congregate between classes because it was where the women’s bathroom was located.

McKenzie said the painting should be ready to hang in the renovated space by mid-winter, and she hopes the piece will bring as much meaning to the people who see the work as it will to her during the creative process.

“This space, the lower level of Memorial Church, once served as the only place women could gather at Harvard,” she said. “I cannot think of a better place for a work of art paying homage to women.”

Artist Janet McKenzie works on a painting in her Vermont studio. Courtesy photo