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Clothing Expressing the Faith: Exemplified through Black Saints

At Litany, we love referencing classical art for inspiration in our designs and social media! The rich colors, textures, and depth of these great works of art speak to the quality we aim to provide in our garments. We frequently use paintings of Christ, Our Lady, and the saints in our work, but it’s become more and more obvious how these classical works often lack diversity in skin tone.

“Why is this?” you may ask. During the Renaissance, art strictly reflected European lifestyle. For instance, devotion to St. Catherine of Alexandria swept throughout France which led to many artists to depict her with a European flair even though she was from Egypt. Similarly, Sts. Augustine and Monica are usually depicted as Romans (due to their citizenship) rather than as North Africans.

The lack of racial diversity within classical art has a lasting impact and deemphasizes the universality of the Church. The accurate representation of our Church’s greatest saints is vital for conveying how all of mankind is made in God’s image.

In honor of Black History Month, we would like to emphasize and focus on some of the incredible black saints who communicated the faith (often in continuity with their culture) through what they wore — showing that expressing the faith does not require an assimilation to European culture.

St. Perpetua was a noble woman from Carthage who wrote one of the earliest martyrdom accounts during her imprisonment. A fellow Christian, Sarturus, completed St. Perpetua’s narrative upon observing her torture in the colosseum. He noted a significant moment in which she chose to outwardly express her faith and martyrdom as a moment of triumph, not tragedy. He wrote, “Next, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her disheveled hair; for it was not becoming that a martyr should suffer with hair disheveled, lest she should seem to grieve in her triumph.” (Narrative of Felicity and Perpetua circa 203 AD). The history of African hair pins in antiquity served various purposes aside from styling and was often used as a weapon or tool. In the case of Perpetua’s triumph, she uses this very “weapon” as a sign of surrender to the weight of glory, knowing that her hope is beyond this world. She did not despair in what appeared to be tragic, but expressed joyful confidence in heaven through the gesture of fixing her hair.

Sr. Thea Bowman wore Nigerian garments as an expression of her mission since the “Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration would wear secular clothing rather than the modified habit…they chose to dress more like the people they serve.” Sr. Thea joyfully proclaimed through her garments, saying: “I come to my Church fully functioning. I bring myself, my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become, I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the Church.” Her fellow Franciscans mention in the documentary, Going Home Like A Shooting Star: Thea Bowman’s Journey to Sainthood, that she never bought these garments for herself. Many provided her with the traditional garments when she shared her desire to express her culture as complementary with the faith. Sr. Thea did not see the need to assimilate to European culture since the Church is universal and needs our specific gifts, culture, and histories.

Bl. Lucien Botovasoa was born on the southern coast of Madagascar and became a devoted father. He was a devout teacher, but was martyred by his own students (who were a part of anti-Christian forces). Admired for his faith, some even asked if he regretted not becoming a priest to which he responded zealously that he doesn’t have the slightest regret Lucien rejoiced in expressing his devotion through his clothing as a layperson, “He avoided wearing the traditional black slacks that teachers and religious wore. He dressed in the khaki colored clothes that Third Order Lay Seculars wore. He was proud of being part of the Secular Franciscans and wanted everyone to know he was a layperson” (Aleteia).

St. Ephigenia was an Ethiopian princess who set aside her royal garbs to live as a consecrated virgin. She wore a simple veil and frock to express her devotion to the faith. Legends claim that St. Matthew preached the Gospel in Ethiopia and her family was baptized which led to her consecrating her life to Christ. Steadfast devotion is maintained to her throughout Brazil, Peru, and Spain to St. Ephigenia.

Bl. Isidore Bakanja from northeast Zaire (then, Belgian Congo) sometime between 1885 and 1890, converted to Christianity after hearing the Gospel from the Trappist missionaries. Devoted to wearing the brown scapular, he taught the faith to his fellow workers. He was martyred for refusing to put away this tangible expression of the faith and prayed for his persecutors as he died.

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