The Illustrated Body of Christ?

A Catholic perspective on religious tattoos


Mark your calendars: We are have moved into one of those rare periods where being Jewish — throughout history a fairly exciting state of existence — is also fun. In her recent article, “Tattooed Jews: a new generation expresses its Jewishness in controversial ways,” Monica Rozenfeld reports that God’s original chosen people — a group that included my own father — has discovered the world of devotional body art. What a rich and varied world it is. Jacob wrestling God’s angel, the children of Israel avenging Dinah, even Maimonides and Nachmanides in a tug-of-war over a loaf of challah — any of these images might serve as a badge of religious pride to turn the heads of the nations.

Stock images

Alas, the view from the Catholic end is much bleaker. Though our mother, the Church, is well known for beguiling believers through their senses, she’s also famous for her attachment to tradition. For every person, every event, every concept in her canon, there is a shopworn stock image. Everyone knows that Notre Dame de Lourdes should wear roses on her feet, just as everyone knows that Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe should wear a star-covered mantle. The Holy Spirit should look like a comforting dove or a purifying tongue of flame. St. John the Evangelist should look young and faintly glam, in the manner of Brett Michaels or Marc Bolan.

To those among the faithful who would mark themselves for life, this could spell aesthetic catastrophe. Every tattoo shopper strives for uniqueness. No one wants to be the umpteenth guy at the bar with a black tribal band encircling his starboard gun. Now that religious tattoos have become, for God’s sake, trendy — Tara Ramroop reports that they account for 44% of the tattoos at Baylor University — it is entirely possible to be the umpteenth guy at the bar with the Sacred Heart of Jesus peeking out from between his scapulae.

Tampering with tradition

Yet, as anyone whose life in the Church has straddled Vatican II will tell you, traditions are there for a reason. Tamper with them, and the result could be tacky at best, heretical at worst. Case in point: Hanging on the wall of my own parish church is a man-shaped figure, made of a transparent greenish plastic-like material, stretching its arms skyward and wearing a halo that resembles a graduate’s mortarboard. Though it is generally said to represent the risen Christ, its spectral quality implicitly challenges the dogma of His bodily resurrection. Worse, it has hips. Probably, some well-meaning modernizer chose it because it was less scary than a conventional corpus.

Our ink lover feels unmoved by all the images in the time-honored pool. A Flemish-style Madonna? Too wan. A Byzantine Theotokos? Too grim. A Mass-card Mary with apple cheeks? Too sentimental. No, he wants something daring, something with oomph.

Now imagine what might happen if someone were to choose a tattoo design in the same cavalier spirit. Our ink lover wants to express his reverence for the Blessed Mother, but feels unmoved by all the images in the time-honored pool. A Flemish-style Madonna? Too wan. A Byzantine Theotokos? Too grim. A Mass-card Mary with apple cheeks? Too sentimental. No, he wants something daring, something with oomph, so he finds an artist to reproduce William Blake’s nude blonde, arrayed in the sun, on his forearm. At first, everything goes great. The gang at his local college youth group is wowed by his edgy brand of piety. Then, one Sunday, he shows it off to some Traditionalists on their way home from Tridentine Mass, who serve him right by booting him straight into the middle of next liturgical year.

Innovating within the boundaries

If there’s a formula for innovating within the boundaries of tradition, John Nava appears either to have deduced or simply tripped over it. In his multi-paneled tapestry, the Communion of Saints, which hangs in Los Angeles’ Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, he depicts a file of the Church’s martyrs and confessors, shuffling toward an unseen Communion rail. Based on live models and dressed identically in white silk gowns, lacking any of the attributes that distinguish them on their Mass cards, Nava’s figures have a compellingly realistic quality. With no loss of saintly dignity or any unseemly sacrifices to the zeitgeist, they remind us of people we know — on my last trip to Atlanta, I rented a car from St. Charles Lwanga — and of our own potential for holiness. Any tattoo artist who can capture that combination of qualities might well be remembered as the Cimabue of his day.

Of course, some would argue that religious tattoos are either tasteless or sacrilegious by their very nature. Leaving my Jewish brethren to re-interpret their Levitical proscriptions for themselves, I’ll simply say that images can be powerful reminders of things past and things to come. As long as the images are fittingly reverent and theologically correct, they can do just as much good needled into the flesh as hanging from the neck or the wall. No less ardent a Catholic than Flannery O’Connor knew this well. In her classic short story, “Parker’s Back,” she has a shifty farmhand cover his back with a tattoo of Khristos Pantokrator. The man’s tattoo scares the dickens out of his friends, ruins his marriage, and in the process, pulls him straight into the middle of the Pascal Mystery. Could such a tattoo have the same effect today, when the wife herself would probably be wearing a tramp stamp of the agonized face on St. Veronica’s napkin? One can only have faith.