header image: Silkscreen Workshop at Immaculate Heart College, 1955
by Luise Mörke
Neatly dressed in floor long habits, veil and wimple, nuns are supposed to embody devotion, modesty, chastity; some of the many, often contradictory ideals against which the worthiness of a woman continues to be measured. Laboring in proximity to holiness, nuns are exempt from the suspicion of commonness, which befalls those who fall short of the expectations concerning female refinement.
Corita Kent – artist, nun, activist – flaunted her own interpretation of holiness by artfully expressing her love for the most common of things: Wonderbread, Sunkist oranges, burgers, tomatoes (calling Virgin Mary “the juiciest of them all”), rendered not as a fresco or an oil painting, but in cheap printing techniques. Through her eyes, even mundane things could incite “a passion for the possible,” as the title of a 1969 print suggests.
Despite the optimistic appearance of her artworks, she did not shy away from the worldly injustices of her time: many of her prints address war, economic inequality, sexism and racism, but offer a hope for change that the more cynical side of Pop Art lacks. Kent was a member of the Immaculate Heart Community in Los Angeles from 1938 to 1968, when she decided to leave her life as a nun following criticism from high clerical ranks: her description of the Virgin Mary had apparently veered the most immaculate of women dangerously close to those of a more common, fleshly kind.
It seems that little has changed since Kent died in 1986. Voices like hers continue to be shunned; what counts is the Law of the Father, as interpreted by the men that hold earthly authority. Is there a shift about to happen? During the first weeks of 2021, thousands here in Germany left the church in protest of how poorly officials are handling the long history of sexual and emotional abuse in church-run institutions. The women of Maria 2.0, an initiative that began as a strike in 2019, have evolved into the most insistent advocates for change, demanding that the Catholic Church must reform rigid rules and anachronistic restrictions that ultimately promote injustice. I can imagine that Corita Kent would approve and risk criticism once more by giving form to the call for a different kind of spiritual practice.