Window to heaven or road to perdition? The icons of Robert Lenz and Bill McNichols

Icons written by New Mexico iconographers raise disquieting questions.

White Crane, a quarterly forum for exploring and enhancing gay men’s spirituality, described Robert Lentz, OFM, as “an artist who creates marvelous icons in the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox churches. He does specifically gay images. Here are Harvey Milk and St. Aelred of Rievaulx. His company, Natural Bridges [now called Trinity Stores], produces greeting cards and prints of his work. Look for Christ the Bridegroom - it's Jesus and St. John.”
 
Issues of The Padre’s Trail in 2005, official newsletter of the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe, indicated that Lentz was a novice at that time at the Casa Guadalupe Friary in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is now stationed at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland, and a member of the Holy Name Province of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans).  
 
 
One wonders what the friars think of the Ss. Sergius and Bacchus icon, with its accompanying narrative that reads: “Ss. Sergius and Bacchus are ancient Christian martyrs who were tortured to death in Syria because they refused to attend sacrifices in honor of Jupiter. Recent attention to early Greek manuscripts has also revealed that they were openly gay men and that they were erastai, or lovers. These manuscripts are found in various libraries in Europe and indicate an earlier Christian attitude toward homosexuality.  After their arrest, the two saints were paraded through city streets in women’s clothing, treatment that was meant to humiliate them as officers in the Roman army. They were then separated and each was tortured. Bacchus died first and appeared that night to Sergius, who was beginning to lose heart. According to the early manuscripts, Bacchus told Sergius to persevere, that the delights of heaven were greater than any suffering, and that part of their reward would be to be re-united in heaven as lovers.”
 
 
Another “gay image” painted by Lentz is the icon depicting “The story of the love between Jonathan and David [that] is recorded in 1 and 2 Samuel in the Bible.”  The narrative says: “Times have changed since these events were recorded, and such intense love between two men makes many uncomfortable in our day. For gay men who struggle to remain within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, however, the love between Jonathan and David is an inspiration and strength.”
 
Lentz also paints pagan icons.  He describes his Horned God icon as “one of the most ancient masculine images of God in Europe.
 
”The “benign antlered figure...predates Celtic civilization, but was embraced by the Celts for its beauty and truth. The Horned God was a protector of all animal life. He was especially linked with the masculine sexuality and spirituality. He was considered Lord of the Otherworld and guided souls to their destination after death. In Celtic art he is usually shown sitting cross-legged and wearing a torque -– the Celtic symbol of authority. Christian missionaries tried to stamp out the image of the horned god when they came to northern lands. Monastic scribes retold ancient legends with an increasingly sinister twist. In time, the Horned God was pictured in the popular imagination as a demonic figure who rode through the night skies in search of damned souls...."
 
"In this icon, the Horned God is connected with Christ. Christ sits before us in the posture of the Horned God, totally naked, but without shame. His confident nakedness emphasizes that what God has made is good. Behind him are ancient European petroglyphs of the Horned God. He bears the wounds of his crucifixion to signify that he has risen and has taken a more cosmic character than he had during his life in Palestine. He is beating a drum and inviting us to dance, reminiscent of a medieval English carol that describes him as the ‘Lord of the Dance.’”
 
Fr. William Hart McNichols
 
One of Lentz’ iconography students, Fr. William 'Bill' Hart McNichols, moved to Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, in 1999 where he assisted at the church of San Francisco de Asis. He is currently assigned to St. Joseph parish in Albuquerque.
 
McNichols caught the national eye when, “in 2000, he agreed to be interviewed by a reporter from The Kansas City Star for a series about priests dying of AIDS. Though not HIV-positive himself, he came out in the articles as gay.” [See: Mubarak Dahir, “The dangerous lives of gay priests,” The Advocate, July 23, 2002.]
 
Father Bill has always been open about this.  “Before he was ordained in 1979, he told his superiors he was gay: ‘I wanted to go into it honestly.’ At the time, he says, ‘no one made a big deal about it.’”  And he felt that he was able to contribute a great deal, helping men who were dying of AIDS.  By 1990, however, he was burnt out, “moved to New Mexico, where he studied under the well-known gay iconographer Robert Lentz.  Eventually, McNichols landed in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, where he remains today.”
 
McNichols, like Lentz, produces many traditional images.  Those among them, however, are some with a political edge that defy tradition, for example, the “Holy Prophet” Philip Berrigan, the Passion of Matthew Shepard, Islamic Mystic and “Holy Martyr” Hallaj al Asrar.  However, it takes more than suffering (or conviction) to make a man holy.
 
Why this scrutiny of Lentz and McNichols’ work?  Whose business is it to know their personal inclinations and weaknesses – even those they have themselves already made public?
 
The fact is that icons are serious business.  Like sermons, they have important truths to teach, which is why they are called “windows to heaven.”  Their beauty goes straight to the heart. 
 
An iconographer, therefore, has a tremendous responsibility.  One who distorts the facts, who uses his art to glorify sin - giving sexual meaning to innocent friendships, depicting darkness as if it were light, and using God-given talent to serve strange gods – can deceive the worshiper as effectively as anyone who has produced a heretical  treatise.  
 
For those who are wondering, Hallaj al Asrar was executed by fellow Muslims for the heresy of saying, "I am the (Absolute) Truth" (ana'l-haqq).
 
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies', which is available at Amazon. She is also the editor of The Pequeños Pepper, a publication based in New Mexico.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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