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: Not your “this-could-be-for-anyone” Christmas gift guide

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With Christmas rapidly approaching, many of us run into the problem of finding great and unique gifts for our friends and relatives. For this reason, we have come up with a gift guide that can make your Christmas shopping a little more fun.

For your friend who enjoys “Naptio Divina”

We all know that sleeping during adoration or prayer isn’t all that bad: you rest with Jesus, right? Well, we thought this quality would be worth honoring with this shirt from Elly and Grace that you can gift your “Jesus-took-naps” friend. The cozy baseball shirt is perfect for any man or woman who enjoys resting with Jesus. Visit EllyandGrace.com for more information.

It is great to nap with Jesus; but… it is also good to pray. Therefore, we have included Fr. Larry Richard’s “No Bible, No Breakfast! No Bible, No Bed!” Scripture Calendar, in case your friend is tempted to nap with Jesus every time, instead of talking with him. You can find this calendar on CatholicCompany.com and help your friend remain faithful to praying without napping.

For your friend who evangelizes while they drive

Is your friend’s driving accompanied by countless Rosaries and acts of contrition? We have the perfect gift! The Catholic Company provides numerous car accessories for the fast evangelizers. It reminds them to wait for their guardian angels on the road in their works of mercy. On the Catholic Company inventory, you can also find sacred images and pins, such as the visor clip for any parent who is worried about their children’s driving habits.

For your friend who fights for a cause

Religious art, yards, a great cause: everyone wins with one. Angel Haus is a Denver-based nonprofit that provides employment for the disabled by creating religious art, especially for yards. The founder is the newly-ordained Deacon David Arling, who has been operating it since its initiation five years ago. They have now sold over 300 Christmas Display boards and San Damiano Cross images. The family business has encountered much support from their pastor, Father Michael Carvill at Nativity of Our Lord Church. Nonetheless, they need your support to continue with this project. To purchase an item for your friend and help this great cause, email Arling at djarling2011@hotmail.com.

For your friend who is a lost cause

Okay, okay, no person is a lost cause; but we all know someone who is pretty close to being one. As soon as you think they’ve finally gotten it, an off-the-cuff comment smashes all your hopes. Hold fast and do not despair, St. Jude is here to help! This 3 ½” tall St. Jude wooden peg from Etsy.com will make sure that the patron saint of lost causes is constantly at work for your friend. Etsy provides a wide variety of religious hand-painted figures from Whymsical Lotus that range from the Sacred Heart to your favorite saints, such as St. Therese, St. Patrick, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. These charmingly detailed and delightful dolls make a unique gift for those friends who need a special intercessor.

For your little friend

Running out of ideas to gift your child, godchild, or short friend? The search is over. Faithful Findz from Etsy.com makes great replicas of saints’ attires. Take, for instance, the “Saint John Paul II the Great” costume, handmade out of cotton poly fabric (Hawaiian Pope mobile not for sale: sad, I know; but a miter and red cape can be purchased separately). Some of their popular costumes include the habits of Mother Teresa and Padre Pio (gloves included). Even more, the maker requests the person’s waist measurement to ensure the best fit. When in doubt, you won’t lose with the saints, and neither will your little friends.

For your priestly friend

He already has all sorts of things, what could he possibly want? Rosaries, religious art, and other religious accessories are probably some of the most common gifts for priests (or priestly friends). Nonetheless, we can assure you that very few have a custom-made priest bobblehead of themselves. It makes a great gift! All you have to do is send a couple pictures of your favorite priest to MyCustomBobblehead.com. Doesn’t sound like the best idea? Look at it this way: it is a way for your priest to remember and embrace his obedience to the teachings of the Catholic Church, as his bobblehead will constantly nod to God’s will and shake his head to refuse all sinful things. Plus, you’ll get a discount if you mention you saw this in the Denver Catholic.

For your friend who never gave up on comics

Why would anyone give up on comic books when you have great initiatives like The Ultimate Catholic Comic Book? A group of Catholic cartoonists joined forces to bring about this entertaining, clever, humorous, and enriching book for all ages. Although many of the parodies and puns may well go over children’s heads, the comics contain messages that remain true to Catholic Doctrine. You can buy it and check out the sample digital copy at CatholicComicBook.com.