By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published May 29, 2014
I should be a millionaire; at least, my wife should be.
You’ve seen them: the stick figure “families” that adorn the back windows of minivans and SUVs all over the Archdiocese?
We invented them; at least, my wife did.
Several years ago, when we were dating, my wife presented me with the first greeting card she ever gave me. The envelope was decorated with the most delightful “people,” people exactly like those you now see on automobiles everywhere. I liked the figures immediately; they were whimsical and simple yet artfully drawn.
“What do you call them,” I asked.
“Stickle-Wickles,” she said. “I’ve been drawing them for years.”
In perhaps the only moment I will ever have of flashing entrepreneurial genius, I encouraged her to copyright and market them. “People will love them,” I said. “They’ll be everywhere!”
We didn’t do anything about the Stickle-Wickles. You know the rest of the story.
Still, I enjoy looking at the stick-figure families, of which there are now many varieties, whenever I am stopped at a traffic light. And while I know that this fad too shall one day pass, I am reminded when I see these cartoon families of the brilliant work of Catholic artist and illustrator Virginia Broderick, whose work will never pass away.
Virginia Broderick is arguably the most important Catholic illustrator of the 20th century. For years, her iconic work illustrated hundreds of books, missals, liturgical guides, prayer books, and devotionals. Her larger works were commissioned for churches and Catholic offices all over the world. Her distinctive visual style is immediately recognizable and striking; in many ways, she captured for the universal Church the essence of the spirit of Vatican II.
Like so many great Catholic artists of the 20th century, Broderick was a convert to the faith, but she seemed destined to become a Catholic as much as she was meant to be an artist. Born in Milwaukee in 1917, she exhibited talent as a child and by the age of 9, she was already receiving formal instruction. She asked to attend Catholic school, even though her family was not Catholic, and she was accepted for admission to Holy Angels Academy. At 16, she converted to Catholicism and went on to attend Mundelein College, a Catholic college in Chicago. She continued to work as an artist, always employing Catholic imagery in her work, and completed her formal studies at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. In 1941, she married Robert Broderick, who was an important Catholic writer and editor. She and Robert were married for 50 years until his death in 1991.
Together, the Brodericks created 14 books, most notably their masterwork, “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” for which Virginia completed 150 illustrations. In 1982, the Brodericks were honored with the highest award the papacy bestows upon the laity when they were both inducted into the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher.
Yet Virginia’s work was by no means limited to her collaborations with her husband. For decades, especially following Vatican II, her illustrations were known to American Catholics as integral to Catholic identity and experience. She was a prolific contributor to the Leaflet Missal Company, which was a large supplier of missals and other liturgical books to both parishes and individuals. Many people, myself included, have vivid memories of dog-eared communal missals that were filled with her unique drawings.
Broderick’s style, much like that of the stick-figure families, is simple. Yet the simplicity belies a tremendous depth and technical proficiency. She called her approach to art “Cloisonism,” which contains elements of both Impressionism and Cubism, yet which is uniquely her own. “This is the style I am happiest with,” she explained. “It’s a basic use of the elements of art—line, form, color, and chiaroscuro.”
The subject matter is always religious; her images that relate to the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary are particularly striking. Also notable are her blends of word and image, animal and human, natural and supernatural. Even illustrations of the most familiar Catholic subjects seem entirely new. Broderick will be remembered as an artist who captured the essence of modern Catholicism.
Part of that essence is of course the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II. She said, “I want my work to appeal to everyone who loves God, not just Catholics. I’ve always felt very ecumenical.”
Yet her work also becomes evangelical and fully anticipates the spirit of the New Evangelization. Many converts, and many returning cradle Catholics, want to see what is different about Catholicism. What makes it unique among the Christian churches? How is it different? How is it special in that difference?
I know that when I was preparing to enter the Church over 20 years ago, Broderick’s art was one aspect of Catholicism that struck me immediately as uniquely Catholic. I’d never seen anything quite like it; it was simple, yet mysterious. It compelled attention.
“There are deeps within deeps when you’re working with religious ideals. I feel an urgency,” said Broderick. Indeed, Broderick’s drawings seem to exist both in and out of time; as contemporary as they seem, they also capture a sense of the ancient. In her art, one can sense the same sense of return to the early Church as the changes intended by Vatican II.
For those who are unfamiliar with Broderick’s work, or who don’t recognize her name, one look at some of her work will spark either affinity or recollection. Though Broderick died 10 years ago, her work is still widely available today. Even for those unable to see her larger installations in churches and other Catholic buildings, the illustrations are easy to find and are still used by numerous Catholic publishers.
I think ultimately that like the stick-figure families, Broderick’s art continues to demand attention because its recognizable and basic style addresses what really matters. Further, her work—like all Catholic art—remains important because it teaches the essential beauty and truth of the Catholic faith.
We are all of us in Catholic education concerned about the decline of quality catechesis, and we spend a lot of time talking, teaching, and writing about how we can improve faith formation.
Perhaps one way to begin is to be quiet, and prayerfully consider the simple yet provocative religious art of Virginia Broderick. In many ways, it says it all.
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.