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: Relativism: An obstacle to the pursuit of truth

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When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Partridge Family. Mostly because I was completely enamored of the late David Cassidy, whom I was convinced I would marry some day. But also because the show featured just the kind of mildly corny humor a seven year old is inclined to enjoy.

I remember one joke in particular. Keith (David Cassidy) is trying to give big brotherly advice to Danny (Danny Bonaduce). He says “If you just believe, you can be anything you want to be.”

Danny responds, “Great! I want to be a black woman.” Laugh track ensues. Because everybody knows that a pale white, red-headed, freckle-faced kid cannot grow up to be a black woman.

I was thinking about that scene as I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron Feb. 6, giving a riveting talk on relativism to a packed house here in Denver. As he spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of relativistic thinking, I realized that joke couldn’t be told today. Because, as a society, we don’t seem to agree that race, gender, or just about anything else, are based in any kind of objective truth.

Bishop Barron spoke of a video you may have seen. A rather short male interviewer asks college students what they would think if he told them he identifies as a woman. Then an Asian woman. Then a 6’4” Asian woman. They hesitate at times, but all ultimately agree that if that is his “truth,” then he is indeed entitled to be a tall Asian woman.

That is the ultimate expression of relativism.

Relativism, boiled down, is essentially the belief that there is no “objective” truth that is true for all. Rather, we as individuals, each establish our own subjective “truths,” and we live “authentically” to the extent that we honor these individual “truths.”

The speed with which we have descended down this path is breathtaking. When I was in my 20’s (which was not long ago at all — right???), I used to debate abortion at Berkeley. Not exactly a friendly audience — I remember mentally noting exits, including windows, that I could utilize if things got out of hand. But they showed up, and they listened, because there was still some understanding in society that there was such a thing as truth, and hence an openness to listen to others to see if together we could arrive at that truth. Or, at the very least, that I could employ the truth as I see it to convince you that your understanding of the truth is flawed.

Not so today. Open discussion of controversial issues is almost nonexistent on most college campuses. Of course. If I have my truth and you have your truth, what would be the point? We are just supposed to respect each others’ truths and move on.

But the problem is that we all have to play together in the same sandbox. Somebody’s truth has to rule our social interaction. If we can’t come to an agreement about whose truth is truer, then the only option left is force. And so, instead of listening to what you have to say, I attempt to forcibly shut you down. I smash windows. I disrupt your talk. Or, alternatively, I call on the authority of the university to do that dirty work for me while I hide in a safe space with my crayons and puppy videos.

Pope Benedict XVI called relativism a “dictatorship.” And, ironically, it is. The philosophy that purports to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, actually allows no one to believe in anything but relativism. And because there need be no rhyme nor reason behind any individual belief, enforcement through persuasion becomes impossible. Hence, the inevitable clash of ideologies. And it will be the stronger, not the most persuasive, who will prevail.

Parents, please — teach your children that there is such a thing as truth. That yes, we may disagree with others about what that truth is. That we respect people — all people — regardless of their beliefs. (Another objective truth.) But beneath the disagreement, there is a truth. There is a God or there isn’t. Jesus Christ is divine or He isn’t. Sexual expression has an inherent meaning or it doesn’t. Gender is fixed or it isn’t.

[And parents, if you want help with this, get your hands on Chris Stefanik’s book Absolute Relativism, and check out his YouTube videos on the same subject.]

In any disagreement about objective truths, someone is right and someone is wrong. Or perhaps both are partially wrong and neither grasps the full truth. But the truth is there.

In the old days, our goal was to find it.