Decoding the Julia Greeley icon

Melissa Keating

Julia Greeley is the Archdiocese of Denver’s official model of mercy for this jubilee year. Unfortunately, the only existing picture of her is blurry, and most of her face is hidden by a large hat.

JuliaGreeley

This is the only known photo of Julia Greeley.

“We had a lack of imagery for Julia, but there’s a great devotion to her locally. There was a need to help bring her alive for the people of the diocese,” Chancellor Dave Uebbing said.

Luckily, there’s a long tradition of Christian art allowing an artist to show their subject without full knowledge of what they may have looked like. It’s called iconography.

Icons are more than pictures; they’re meant to be a two-way door of communication that not only shows a person or event, but actually makes it present. Unlike much religious art, they are not merely decorative or immediately understandable. Icons contain their own language of symbolism.

Uebbing commissioned iconographer Vivian Imbruglia to write an icon of Julia. Imbruglia was at first hesitant to call the image an icon, because she didn’t want to give the impression that she was canonizing Julia herself. However, she used the unique language of iconography to communicate Julia’s life to the viewer (see image below for some of those symbols).

“I wrote it like I would a normal icon, with prayer and research, with the same media, but I did not put any gold in the background or a halo, because that would mean I was declaring her a saint,” Imbruglia said.

Uebbing sees the picture as a success.

“What’s important in this image, as opposed to the photo, is that it’s full of symbolism. When I look at this picture of Julia, I just see a person who is warm and loving and pure. She’s not scarred by her experiences in any way. God’s love shines through her,” Uebbing said.

Stories in the icon

The child

Many of the stories surrounding Julia include children. She would take them for rides on the trolley, dance with them in the streets and even laugh with them when they pointed out she accidentally put her skirt on inside JuliaGreeleyIconout. Uebbing said these stories are part of what makes Julia so saint-like.

“If you look at the lives of the saints, and even Julia herself, loving children is a common trait,” Uebbing said.

Imbruglia painted the child pulling one of Julia’s fingers backward, as children will do. She said she imagined Julia allowing the discomfort.

The mountains

These help place Julia in Colorado, without having the business of a scene of downtown Denver.”When people outside of Colorado think of Colorado, we think mountains. We think outdoors,” Imbruglia said.

Imbruglia also hid the words “AMDG” in the mountains, as she does in all of her icons. “AMDG” stands for the Latin “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam” and is the motto of the Jesuits.

The crest

Julia laid in state at Sacred Heart parish for hours before her funeral.

“She laid in state, which had never happened to a regular lay person, so she was somewhat royalty in her own way. Hence the crest,” Imbruglia said.

The crest contains the Franciscan coat of arms (top), because Julia was a secular Franciscan, and was even buried in the Franciscan habit. There is a firefighter hat and axe (bottom left) because Julia was particularly devoted to evangelizing fireman. She would also drag a little red wagon (bottom right) around town to deliver goods to the poor.

The icon is topped with a red ribbon and a chalice holding the Eucharist.

“The red ribbon is the color of mercy. This being the Year of Mercy, and her being the model of it, it just seemed fitting,” Imbruglia said.

The Eucharist indicates Julia’s devotion to it.

“She was so devoted to the Eucharist. In her simple way, it was her breakfast,” Imbruglia said, quoting one of the few phrases Julia is known to have said.

The Sacred Heart

Julia had a well-documented devotion to the Sacred Heart. She would hand out tracts about it at fire stations, and even attended Sacred Heart Parish in Denver.

There is also a small Sacred Heart in the joining bead on the rosary.

The illumination

Although Imbruglia did not give Julia a halo because she is not a saint, she did allow the Sacred Heart to illuminate her face.

“I did take the liberty, if you look around her head, there is a lighter glow,” Imbruglia said. “If you look at where Julia’s heart would be, you’ll see the same yellow as in the Sacred Heart. I want her burning desire for the Sacred Heart to show.”

The clothes

Julia typically wore simple clothes.

“She usually wore a black dress and big, floppy hat,” Uebbing said.

However, Imbruglia intentionally painted Julia in a white dress with simple lines.

“They’re not to distract from her face. She’d want us to see the Sacred Heart first, and we see her face second,” Imbruglia said.

Julia’s face

Julia was not attractive. One of the accounts of her actually references her having a “Phantom of the Opera face”.

Most noticeably, one of her eyes drooped and leaked, due an injury she received while still a slave. She was disfigured for life.

“She couldn’t see out of the eye. It was always weeping,” Uebbing said.

The gold leaf

The chalice and the Sacred Heart both include a gold leaf, and the rosary is made out of platinum. Imbruglia said that this is because she wants to especially honor the representations of Christ in the icon.

“Anytime I can give honor and glory to make Him stand out, I do,” she said.

COMING UP: In new Denver school, Byzantine spirituality meets Montessori method

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.- With the goal of encountering children on a more personal level to meet their academic and spiritual needs, a Montessori school influenced by the Byzantine Catholic tradition is opening in Denver, Colorado.

Pauline Meert, who co-founded Sophia Montessori Academy along with Irene O’Brien, said the two “wanted to combine Montessori and Catholicism because it just made so much sense.”

Meert said the school aims to help children fulfill their God-given potential, and that “the Montessori message really makes that possible for each child, not just for a classroom as a whole, but for each individual.”

Students in Montessori schools work in periods of uninterrupted time – ideally three hours – having the freedom to choose from an established range of options. The Montessori Method uses hands-on techniques in presenting concepts to individual children, rather than a group oriented, lecture-based approach to learning. The student’s involvement in his or her own work then gives the teacher the freedom to spend time with each child and cater to each of their needs.

Sophia Montessori of Denver is in its final stages of its development, pending licensing and a few business inspections. But classes for children aged between three and six are expected to start in the fall of this year, and both Meert and O’Brien hope the school, currently with 11 families enrolled, will grow in number and into the high school level.

When asked about the origin of the school’s idea, Meert discussed her connection to children and her dream helping bring about a child’s full potential. She began her Montessori training in high school, and later envisioned Catholic teaching and the Montessori Method together.

Meert said the school has been four years in the making, but that she added the Byzantine spirituality aspect within the past year after she became a parishioner at Holy Protection Parish in Denver.

“The Byzantine faith is going to be the foundation,” she said, noting that the day will begin with a form of the Jesus prayer.

Montessori schools often begin the day with the “silence game,” in which children learn how to be calm and quiet in a time period of about 30 seconds to two minutes. Many schools have interpreted this freely, but she expressed a desire to tie this into the Byzantine’s Jesus Prayer.

“The beauty about being Byzantine is that we do that through the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on us, your children,’ she said, “You know because it’s kind of hard to call them sinners right away.”

The school will also have the kissing of icons and will teach according to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

“The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a very hands-on way of teaching the children about who Jesus is in time and space: through the parables, through infancy narratives, and through learning the nomenclature of the church.”

Children want to be a part of the world of adults and understand the liturgy, she said, and so the teachers aim to give them direct experiences related to the tabernacle and liturgical seasons.

“If we just tell them to be quiet and read a book during mass and during liturgy then we are not meeting their needs. They just want to know, they just want to be a part, they want to be welcomed by the church.”

She said many people would be surprised at the theological discussions she’s had with four-year-olds as well as the harmony created in the classroom. The environment is “surprisingly peaceful and calm, even though there are 20 three-to-six year-olds together.”

Meert also described the trust needed to allow children the freedom to make choices within prescribed limitations. “Three year-olds can do so much!” she said.

Meert defined this freedom as “not the freedom to do whatever you want, but…the freedom that Saint Thomas Aquinas talks about – having freedom within responsibility, within boundaries and within awareness of other people.”

In her interview with CNA, she also voiced her hope to establish afternoon classes for homeschooled kids and support for parents.

“We want to give parents tools and support. Some of the Montessori approach is common sense, but sometimes it’s a little trickier and parents just need extra support (or) someone to bounce ideas off of,” she said.

“We really want to be that support with those tools, and create a community that is often missing in our life.”

Featured image by Natalia Zhuravleva – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47443889