The art essay

Saint Josephine Bakhita (2003) by Janet McKenzie

Janet McKenzie’s muted palette of subdued colors seems like an odd choice for the depiction of Saint Josephine Bakhita, whose early life was anything but tranquil. Born around 1869 in the Darfur region of Sudan, her carefree childhood in the tribe of the Dafu was brutally interrupted when she was abducted by Arab slavers at age nine. Her dramatic story began with a six-hundred-mile barefoot trek to the slave market in El-Obeid, during which she was bought and sold twice, first to a wealthy Arab and then to a Turkish general. Beatings, punishment, and ultimately maiming marked her twelve years as a slave, so distancing her from any memory of love, respect, or dignity that she forgot her own name. One of the slavers called her “Bakhita,” the Arabic word for “fortunate,” a cruel irony given her state.

Bakhita’s story, or at least its beginning, seems to cry out for searing primary colors, scarlet, orange, gold, chartreuse: an explosive palette evoking the violence, envy, and greed that marked her formative years.

But McKenzie dismisses those hues, focusing her attention on steadfast line and soothing tones. A soft salmon background with flashes of marigold and cerulean suggests peace over violence. McKenzie draws on the later events of Saint Josephine’s life, after she was purchased by the Italian Vice Consul of Khartoum. With the eruption of a local rebellion, she was able to accompany the family back to Italy. There she won her freedom thanks to the intervention of the Canossian Sisters of Venice. Converted to Christianity, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the Archbishop of Venice, Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, the future Pope Saint Pius X. She took the name of Josephine Margaret Fortunata, and her life began anew.

Beauty revealed

The remaining forty-five years of her life were marked by the serene joy of being Catholic. She did small tasks for the Canossians, whom she had joined, spending most of her time as the doorkeeper, always greeting everyone with a warm smile. Her cheerfulness, unflagging despite pain and degenerative illness, was her calling card among the people of Schio, the town where she lived.

It is this Mother Bakhita, as she came to be called, that Janet McKenzie depicts in her arresting oil painting. She stands tall and firm against the pale background, a delicate mauve, tinged slightly with blue. In darkening the festive notes of pink with a hint of blue, the artist recalls distant clouds of her painful youth.

In the painting, Saint Josephine stands tall in the center, a dark figure painted in heavy strokes. While invoking the religious habit and veil known from her photograph, it also adds majesty to her figure. She appears as protectress to the two young girls beside her, and at the same time the doorkeeper to the luminous space beyond.

The two young girls evoke the past and present of human trafficking. One girl is Josephine’s sister who was also abducted. The other girl represents the continuing blight of human trafficking today, when 600,000 to 800,000 people are enslaved each year, seventy percent of them women. Saint Josephine’s powerful presence shields these children in her new role as the patroness of survivors of human trafficking.

The girl on the left, eyes downcast, wears a bright crown of flowers—an elegant flourish, but also a reminder of these young women stolen in the first bloom of their youth. The other gazes out at the viewer with a direct yet enigmatic gaze that provokes some discomfiture—should she fear you? Will you help? Where do you stand in the very real battle against human trafficking today? The cheerful orbs of yellow and blue evoke her right to play fearlessly in the sun instead of being abducted into darkness. The shimmering white veil, reminiscent of the bright silk folds used in lieu of halos by the fifteenth-century Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini, are perhaps a tribute to the millions of young women who are abducted and murdered, who never had the good fortune, as Bakhita did, to find freedom, the love of God, and the opportunity to tell their story.

Beauty becomes universal

While the color catches the eye, it is McKenzie’s underlying love of line that gives stability to the work. The bold strokes—vertical, horizontal, diagonal—hold the color fields together like the lead borders of stained glass. Bakhita’s early story is vivid, but it is her life, re-ordered to conform to Christ and his teachings, that marked her path to holiness.

Mother Bakhita stands tall above the girls, a solid, voluminous presence that appears to envelop the girls while warding off any who might think of harming them. The haunting element of the work lies in its vaguely unsettling dualities, the delicate stained-glass quality of the light and the dark, and the almost intimidating presence of the saint. The youthful faces and cheerful colors contrast with the solemn expressions. Perhaps the most telling detail is the slender stalks that frame the women, described by the artist as desert orchids. Native to Sudan, their roots must dig deep into the ground to survive. McKenzie added them because, although the flowers seem delicate, they have a fierce determination to live, like Saint Josephine Bakhita.

McKenzie, an American painter born one hundred years later and six thousand miles distant from Mother Bakhita, stands in a long line of great Christian artists who have drawn people together to celebrate diverse stories of the many roads to sanctity, holding up the universal beauty of holiness, which remains common through all ages.

Elizabeth Lev

Writer and professor of art history in Rome, Italy.


Saint Josephine Bakhita (2003), Janet McKenzie. © Collection of Deborah and Ronald Sheffield, Little Rock, AR, USA.