Iconography isn’t reserved for Renaissance art. It’s more than just a painting of a red fruit in the hand of a naked woman strolling an overgrown garden or green dresses covering swollen stomachs. When we see a symbolic image, our brains try to piece together a background for it. Why is it there? What is it connected to? What is the story here? How we react to images tells us something about how iconography, the study, and interpretation of these symbolic images, has continued its existence in the present day but more importantly, it also gives us insight into how we think about other aspects of life like religion and culture.

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A Queen Divides a Nation

At this year’s Grammy Awards, Beyoncé carried out what became later a divisive and significant performance. We were witnesses to thought-provoking images, music, and emotions.

I mean, I don't know about you, but I'd be cool with her suddenly appearing in my house to tell me some prophecy. In fact, I welcome it.

Beyoncé, gloriously pregnant, stepped out onto the Grammy’s award stage wearing gold from head to toe. And behind her head stood a golden halo, glints of stage lights shining beams from it as she moved around the stage and sang. She made people notice her and her body, her large stomach, her outfit, her accessories. Big performances always come with big reactions. Basically, everybody flipped out and no one agreed on anything.

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Or, well, the audience seemed to be split by a few different reactions, ranging from near-adoration to near-hatred, from complete ignorance of what even happened to the possession of extremely particular ideas about almost anything. Some people who reacted negatively to her performance made the argument that pregnancy isn’t some miracle. They say that it contributed to how highly Beyoncé sees herself, whether or not that she’s worthy or not to be in the standing that she is.

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Some took it as Beyoncé dressing up as the Virgin Mary. Internet users seemed to be particularly upset about this interpretation. Those who agreed with this were upset that she was engaging in blasphemy. The performance and the images that Beyoncé chose led these people to think she believed herself to be on the same level as Christ and his mother, both central figures in Christianity with the latter particularly important in Catholic traditions.

I would pay someone a million dollars to find me a painting of the Virgin Mary in a golden bedazzled outfit a la Beyonce. (Blue is more her color anyway.)

There were, however, other interpretations. Due to similar clothing and colors, plus Beyoncé’s pregnancy, people recognized images usually associated with Oshun. These images or attributions were the color yellow, which Oshun, a Yoruba goddess, or orisha, wears often, and Beyoncé’s pregnancy as Oshun is heavily associated with fertility as well as with love, beauty, and water.

This identification of Oshun in Beyoncé’s latest work is not some reaction based solely on the Grammy’s performance. Writers like Kamaria Roberts and Kenya Downs from PBS caught onto the similar images when the accompanying videos to Lemonade, particularly during the song, “Hold Up” were released. In this instance, again, Beyoncé is wearing a golden yellow ensemble and water is key to the visuals as well. She is submerged in it, she lets a flood seemingly flow from her, and water is released from a fire hydrant that she swings at with a baseball bat.

Really, though, what a look.

Why is there this disconnect? If the allusions to Oshun are consistent and documented, why, then, is the gut reaction a belief that Beyoncé is trying to purport herself as the Virgin Mary? A character who is associated with motherhood, a concept that was also central to Beyoncé’s performance, but who is also associated with different aesthetics and attitudes?

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A Semi-Obvious Answer to a Fully Annoying Situation

The answer, in part, is because of the unbalanced weight we give to Christian ideologies and aesthetics when compared with other religions. Christian ideas and art are intrinsically connected to American culture, from the “In God We Trust” lines on every coin to the very names of our cities like Providence or Los Angeles.

Don't even get me started on why these guys decided to show up.

In a 2014 survey, seventy percent of American adults considered themselves to be Christians. It’s true that there are more Christians in the United States than any other faith-based demographic. However, when we are ignorant of the images of another religion or philosophy, we are ignoring the religious and cultural aesthetics of around thirty percent of the country that follows another faith or that isn’t religious at all.

When we don’t understand other cultures, we miss out on the hints they try to provide us. Still, there is another factor to consider when dissecting the reaction to Beyoncé’s performance. Someone who isn’t familiar with Yoruba culture and its religion wouldn’t pick up on the references to Oshun. It’s natural. Yet, to assume everything you see belongs solely, or at all, to your culture or religion is lazy elitism.

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Check Thyself before Thou Wreck Thyself

Christianity and its aesthetics are not purely original. Christmas was declared a holiday by Pope Julius I, around four hundred years after the life of Christ, and he chose the date December 25. The date proved to be useful for a number of reasons, two of them being daylight savings and the pre-existence of mid-winter festivals. Pagans, or non-Christians, already had celebrations in the middle of winter. There was no work to be done in the field as everything has been picked and is dead until spring.

Simply put, winter is just plain physically dark and gloomy. What better time to throw a party than in desperate times? That, plus by the time December 25 rolled around, the days would start to get longer and the people more optimistic. A subtle correlation between the return of the sun and the birth of the Son of God helped Christmas catch on as a popular holiday.

Keep Saturn in Saturnalia!

If one of the religion’s major holiday seasons has some background in other religions, shouldn’t it be possible that other things associated with Christianity could also have an older background? The answer is yes, of course! Another key image of Beyoncé’s performance that made people think she was appropriating images of the Virgin Mary was her golden headpiece. In Christian art, saints and other holy people are often depicted with halos surrounding the back of their heads. It’s meant to identify them as such holy people.

Looks like there are too many saints in the kitchen. Halos have been around long before Christianity existed. Similarly used for holy or otherwise important figures, halos show up in various other religions and their associated art. Buddha has been known to have a halo about his head in some instances, though it is usually much larger than a typical Christian halo. The sun god Ra also has a type of halo frequently seen in Egyptian art. The main difference between the halo used in Christian art and Egyptian art is for Ra, the halo is typically a full circle that is actually above the head rather than behind it.

That profile, though

Not knowing about the different aesthetics of different religion isn’t exactly the crime of the century. What’s troubling, however, was the anger associated with some who didn’t pick up on the references to Oshun and assumed Beyoncé was mocking Christianity. It’s arrogant, brushing away the idea that something created by a popular artist might possibly be about something you have no familiarity with. We run the risk of miscommunication when we don’t know what makes the other person tick, what they find rude, and what they find polite. You’d think in the Information Age, we’d be able to cut out this type of acidic ignorance with a link to a Wikipedia article. As the saying goes, you can lead an Internet user to a fact-checked source but you can’t make them read it.

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