IF you are unaware of its existence, the Church of the Black Christ or St Francis Xavier Catholic Mission in Navunibitu, Ra and its unique painting of a crucified black Christ, have the propensity to conjure up images of the cult world – black robes, veils, spooky rituals and the likes.
In fact, in anger, some people took down a wooden roadside “Church of the Black Christ” billboard erected in Navunibitu many years ago, possibly put off by the thought of having a church where a black looking Christ was worshipped. But what the St Francis Xavier Catholic Mission along the King’s Road and its unconventional painting represent is nothing but a concept of universal love that transcends the boundaries of ethnicity, culture and language.
Unlike Black Christ statues and figurines in churches around the world, the Black Christ in Navunibitu, Ra is a fresco mural.
Fresco is an art technique where the painting is done on a moist, freshly plastered surface using colours ground up in water or a limewater mixture.
This technique is closely associated with Italian Renaissance painting between the 13th and 16th century.
Black Power movement
While there is no direct connection between the Navunibitu mural and churches of the Black Christ around the world or the Black Power movement of the 1960s, literature tells us the preoccupation with the Black Christ is not entirely a new phenomenon.
In the 1960s, around the time the Navunibitu, Ra painting was done, many religious leaders in the West criticised the methods and advances claimed by the civil rights movement.
By far the most vocal Christian minister who advocated for civil rights was Albert Cleage Jr, who was born in Indianapolis in 1911 and grew up in Detroit, a US city that has the highest concentration of blacks.
During Easter of 1967, Cleage unveiled an 18-foot painting of a Black Madonna.
He established the Central United Church of Christ in 1956 but in 1970, shortly after unveiling the Black Madonna, the church name was changed to Shrine of the Black Madonna Pan African Orthodox Christian Church.
It was a hub of progressive, African-centered, religious, cultural and political activity.
At the same time, he launched a Black Christian National Movement, which called for black churches to reinterpret Jesus’ teachings.
Believing that Christianity had been used to keep black people down, he challenged black churches to embrace Jesus as a revolutionary black leader.
Cleage, who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr and was as vocal as Malcolm X, wanted to make Jesus relevant to black Christians of his time.
According to another historical account of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, 22-year-old South African artist, Ronald Harrison caused controversy in 1962 when he painted African National Congress (ANC) leader, Albert Luthuli as Jesus.
The painting, named Black Christ, depicted Luthuli crucified on the cross.
The painting not only challenged the apartheid system, but also the notion that Jesus was white.
Harrison was arrested and the painting was banned. The painting was smuggled to the United Kingdom and was only returned in 1997.
Therefore, the depiction of a black Christ in a church is not a totally new concept nor is it exclusive to Navunibitu in Ra.
According to reports available online, a few churches around the world also call themselves the Church of the Black Christ.
Most are in Central and South America.
Black Christ churches
There is a large white church at Portobelo, Panama called the Iglesia de San Felipe, which is still in use.
It was built in 1814 and is famous as the home of the life-sized effigy of Nazareno of Portobelo, better known as the Black Christ.
The effigy, depicting Christ carrying the cross, resides on a podium. Also, in the Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala, is a statue called the Black Christ or Christi Negro.
Tens of thousands of devout Catholics cram into Esquipulas during the annual celebration of the Black Christ which happens on January 15th.
They pray and ask for help in front of a religious icon which is believed to have cured Pedro Pardo de Figueroa, the Archbishop of Guatemala, from a serious illness in 1737.
The Basilica de Esquipulas is such a major religious site that Pope John Paul II paid a visit there in 1996 to mark the 400th anniversary of the church.
The Pope is said to have called it “the spiritual centre of Central America.
The church of Santa Lucia in Juayúa, El Salvador is famous for a large colonial-era statue of the Cristo Negro, or Black Christ, which hangs behind the altar of the imposing church.
Many people refer to the church not by its official name but as the Cristo Negro church.
In the city of Guadalajara de Buga, Colombia, town renown for religious pilgrims, is a church built in the early 20th century.
This pink church is not of architectural significance.
What makes it stand out is “Cristo Negro” or Señor de los Milagros—a charred woodcarving of Christ that is displayed in a chapel behind the altar.
Praying to the “Black Christ” is believed to provide miracles, and the story behind this icon is one of generosity, devotion, and miracles.
Church of the Black Christ, Navunibitu, Ra
St Francis Xavier Catholic Mission in Navunibitu, Ra or otherwise known as the Church of the Black Christ, houses three frescoes, a triptych (a three-part panel) over the main altar and single panels over each of the two transept altars.
Painted between October 1962 and January 1963 by Jean Charlot, the central triptych, “The Black Christ and Worshipers”, measures ten by thirty feet and features a crucified Black Christ, while the side panels depict full body portraits of indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians presenting culturally appropriate offerings to Christ.
The two side altar panels contain paintings of St. Joseph’s workshop and The Annunciation, each measuring ten by twelve feet.
The central image of the mural is the figure of a Black Christ on the cross, wearing masi (tapa) cloth around his waist.
He is being paid homage to by a number of Fijian figures.
In the immediate background are breadfruit leaves and fruits which express his close relationship with nature and are a vital symbol in the fresco. The Fijian word for breadfruit, uto, is also used for ‘heart’.
At Christ’s feet is a tanoa (yaqona bowl), symbolising the Eucharist.
To his right are a child in a mission school uniform, St Peter Chanel (a martyred Saint in the Pacifi c), then Father Petero Mataca (the first Fijian Catholic high priest), a Fijian woman bringing Christ an offering of woven mats, and a Fijian man offering Christ a tabua (whale’s tooth) – the most valuable traditional item in indigenous Fijian society.
To Christ’s left, a woman of Indian descent is portrayed offering a garland of flowers and a farmer is pictured with a pair of bullocks.
Also shown are St Francis Xavier (whom the church is named after) and an altar boy.
According to accounts, when the mural was complete the entire parish of Naiserelagi held a feast in Charlot’s honour.
Animals were slaughtered and the traditional yaqona ceremony was observed.
As in the mural, women presented the artist with mats.
Jean Charlot the painter
Interesting enough, before coming to paint in Fiji, Charlot had spent some time in Mexico, where he did fresco paintings and where his mother’s family was from.
Mexico, like many countries in Central and South America, had Black Christ churches with Black Christ figurines and statues in them.
It is not known whether or not he picked up the concept of Navunitibitu’s Black Christ mural from his journeys in the Americas.
A man with French, Jewish, Russian and Mexican origins—Charlot arrived in Mexico in 1921 to lead the revival of Mexican fresco painting.
Charlot had come out of France, where he was born, full of energy.
He injected life into Mexico’s artistic and cultural scene.
He helped revive the technique of wood engraving, illustrated poems, books and magazines, wrote outstanding articles on Mexican art.
In 1947 he published a seminal work for Mexican art scholars, “The Revival of Mexican Fresco Painting.”
Although he lived in the United States from the forties until his death in Hawaii in 1979, the artist continued to include Mexico in his art.
Charlot spent the last three decades of his life in Hawaii, where he perfected his talent as an engraver, book illustrator, critic, sculptor, painter, muralist and teacher.
He produced a total of 70 murals, 30 sculptural projects, 1500 drawings, 800 graphic works, countless sketches and paintings on canvas.
He also wrote 19 books and over 100 articles on art and illustrated 52 books and magazines.
His painting in Navunibitu’s St Francis Xavier church, Fiji was towards the end of his illustrious career as a fresco artist who travelled the globe to share his love for the art.