Catholic art for your home doesn’t have to be cheesy

From left, clockwise: “The Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy” by Jen Norton; “The Visitation” by James B. Janknegt; “Mary, Undoer of Knots” by Annie Vaeth; and a traditional painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (iPhoto). From left, clockwise: “The Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy” by Jen Norton; “The Visitation” by James B. Janknegt; “Mary, Undoer of Knots” by Annie Vaeth; and a traditional painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (iPhoto).

About a year ago, I got married and moved in with my husband, and as we set up our apartment, one of the problems we faced was where to hang Creepy Jesus. If you grew up in a Catholic environment, you have seen Creepy Jesus before: the Sacred Heart of Jesus portrait, printed on cardboard with gold foil radiating from the head of a white man with improbably enormous eyes. It is framed in plastic, and no matter where you hang it, the man’s eyes follow you around the room, watching you compassionately as you cook dinner, read a book or fight with your husband.

My husband loves Creepy Jesus. His mother popped the image into his car as he headed off to graduate school, joking that he should keep Jesus in the passenger seat. Since then, Creepy Jesus has hung in Sam’s bedroom or living space. In this apartment, Creepy Jesus hung prominently over the couch. About two weeks after our honeymoon, we had some friends over and moving Creepy Jesus out of the living room became a priority for me. That was an image of me and my new marriage that I did not want to put in anyone’s head.

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Creepy Jesus was an image of me and my new marriage that I did not want to put in anyone’s head.

So, Sam and I set about trying to find a new place for Creepy Jesus. Sam suggested the bedroom. I suggested the pantry or the bathroom, but Sam did not agree. We tried him out by the front door for a few days, but that was alarming. Anywhere in the living or kitchen space in our small apartment would be sure to draw guests’ attention. We settled on the bedroom but positioned so that it wasn’t facing the bed and visitors couldn’t see it through the open door.

Sam found this whole process offensive and somewhat irreligious. What was my problem with this image? Why was I embarrassed about it?

This made me think of David Halle’s Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home (1993). Halle is a sociologist who knocked on the doors of family homes and asked the residents to show him their art—prints and paintings on walls, sculptures in gardens or on side tables. He found that class explains a lot about where people place art and what types of art they have.

I realized my objection to Creepy Jesus had little to do with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a lot to do with class.

This was particularly true about religious art. One of the groups Halle interviewed was working-class immigrants. These mostly Catholic respondents showed him statues of the Virgin Mary among their flowerbeds out front and prints of the Last Supper over their dining room tables. Much of the art in their homes was mass-produced, religious in nature and placed in both the public and private areas of their homes. In contrast, middle-class families who were religious rarely had religious art in the parts of their homes where they received guests—not in their living rooms, dining rooms or kitchens. If they did have religious art, they placed it in private areas—in their bedrooms or on the second floor, where only the more trusted guests would be welcome.

Halle’s book made me realize that my objection to Creepy Jesus had little to do with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a lot to do with class. When thinking about where to hang this image, I thought immediately about what guests would think and what they would think of me. Would a guest feel unwelcome because of such a prominent image? Would people suspect that I secretly harbored a creepy, white, sentimentalized version of Catholicism? But now a new question came into my head: Should my class decide where I put my faith in my home?

Taste in art, music, clothes, home décor and food usually feels very personal. But many of the wider patterns in how we interact with others and make distinctions in matters of taste have a lot to do with class—both the class I was born into and the class to which I aspire. Learning to distinguish between the 50-year-old French cabernet and Trader Joe’s $4 red blend is a class distinction as much as it is a matter of taste. Shopping at Trader Joe’s instead of Walmart may well be a class distinction, for that matter! And religious art is much the same. Upon reflection, I realized that I do not own much religious art. The few pieces I do own, I have typically placed in my bedroom, where they cannot bother my housemates or guests.

Hanging religious art shakes up class-based ideas about how our home should look. 

When we talk about social life, we think about other people. But the environments we create are also an important part of how we enact our relationships with other people and ourselves. Our homes—the rooms, apartments, houses or acreage where we live—may be the most important environments for our social selves. We develop relationships with houses and with the things that we keep in our homes. Tchotchkes and kitchen utensils physically remind us of our relationships with other people and help us to place ourselves socially. But when class is a primary consideration for what we put in our homes and where we put it, our homes recreate social boundaries instead of creating spaces of welcome and belonging.

We probably can’t shake all our class tastes. These tastes inform our stories and help us to appreciate beauty in particular forms of art, music and décor. But we can take a moment to reflect on how our homes support our social selves. The art that is in your home can reinforce class, reminding you and the people you invite into your homes of where they should place you on the social ladder. Or the art in your home can remind you of other commitments and loves. Placing religious art throughout the home supports your faith commitments, reminding you that you belong to a community that transcends class.

Creepy Jesus now sits on a bookcase in my home office. And, yes, sometimes our guests jump when they first encounter his soulful stare.

Our homes are spaces where we feel most ourselves, but they are also spaces where we welcome other people. My class-based reaction assumed that I would invite non-Catholics and people who have complicated relationships with Catholicism into our home. And this still seems an important consideration. I want to think about those guests and how they might interact with our home, too. But if this consideration leads me to create an idealized space, devoid of my faith life, then I am no longer inviting people into my home with the intention of hospitality.

Hospitality makes us vulnerable—we let a person see our most personal spaces, without knowing how they will react. Will they judge me for that dust bunny? Will they spill something on my couch? Will they smell bad or give me a cold? Hanging religious art shakes up class-based ideas about how my space should look, and it may make me feel vulnerable. But it also might be an opportunity for evangelization, to be curious and willing to talk with others about their spiritual journey, which is itself hospitable.

Creepy Jesus now sits on a bookcase in my home office. And, yes, sometimes our guests jump when they first encounter his soulful stare. We have also started to bring more religious images into our home. I am particularly fond of supporting artists currently making religious art, and supporting these artists is easier than it has ever been before. We have found some amazing prints on Etsy, including a linocut of the classic Benedictine exhortation “Ora et Labora” and an image of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, who hangs out in my yarn stash. We have also included some images that remind us of our values, even though they aren’t religious, like the Syracuse Cultural Workers’ “How to Build Community” poster. Looking for religious art inspires me and can be like a prayer. I never could have imagined the beautiful and challenging images that artists are making.

I have always been impressed that many of the Gospel stories show Jesus doing very simple things that others find challenging and even threatening. Jesus sits at the wrong end of a table, says hello to a man up in a tree, talks with women, accepts gifts, touches sick people. He shows us that simple acts erase social hierarchies, giving a sign of the kingdom of God.

Creepy Jesus challenged my sense of what was tasteful and appropriate, and maybe that’s just what Jesus Christ would want. Hanging art can be a simple act to challenge class-based understandings of the role of religion in everyday life. By bringing religious art into the public spaces of our homes, we remind ourselves of the centrality of faith in our lives and share the best parts of ourselves with our guests.

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