The image is startling and, by now, celebrated. A young New York City police officer kneels in the cold to help a man on the street put on a new pair of socks and shoes. Beyond the act of simple kindness, captured in the moment by a tourist with a cell phone, there was something iconic about the image, something familiar and holy.
Before I define that feeling, I remember quite clearly having had it once before. The image was an artifact of the Ethiopian famine and earned the photographer, Stan Grossfeld of the Boston Globe, a Pulitzer Prize in 1985. That’s more than a quarter century ago, yet the image lives in clearest memory, a starving African woman, her eyes askance, her hands framing the head of her child like a halo, the ribs of the baby signaling its malnutrition.
When I went looking for it, I typed in “Starving Madonna” and then “African Madonna,” and there it was.
An icon, in its traditional meaning, is a religious symbol, a picture of a deity or of a saint. The word has been expanded — and cheapened — to include celebrities such as Madonna or Lady Gaga. We say the image of Muhammad Ali standing over a fallen Sonny Liston is “iconic.”
But the “Starving Madonna” retains its integrity as an icon. It evokes Mary holding the Baby Jesus in countless works of serious art and Christmas card illustrations. According to the biblical accounts, Jesus was born into poverty and physical dislocation — a stall for farm animals. Too much of that suffering is buffered in artistic accounts over the centuries as Mary is depicted as older and more European and the baby Jesus becomes cherubic.
Whether Grossfeld intended it or not, he created a visual metaphor — perhaps better to call it a visual allusion — to the Madonna and child. The woman, as we imagine Mary, wears a veil. The child, as we imagine the baby Jesus, is on her lap. Hours later that baby would die from starvation, and it is not extreme to extend the comparison to the Christ child, whose eventual suffering and death would move the world.
The same kind of visual archetype is created, inadvertently I assume, by Jennifer Foster, an Arizona tourist who took via cellphone the photo of the cop helping the man in Times Square. As soon as I saw the image and understood the context, I thought of the biblical story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
Pictured in countless works of art and recounted in John 13, the story describes Jesus at the Last Supper, pouring water into a basin, girding himself with a towel, and washing the feet of his friends and followers, a necessary but lowly job in a land of desert dust and sandals.
The apostle Peter predictably objects to Jesus lowering himself in this way, to which Jesus replies: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If, therefore, I the Lord and Master have washed your feet, you also ought to wash the feet of one another. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you also should do.”
This inversion, that the last shall be first, that the Master shall become the Servant, is at the heart of Christian theology and the social gospel.
In most images captured by civilians that involve the police and the poor, the cops are oppressors, bullies in uniform. Usually they are white, and the heads they are cracking are of darker skin. Here we have something quite different, a true public servant, whose actions go beyond the legal requirements of his professional duty. He offers something deeper, an ethic that can be traced to ancient beliefs and images.
I was lucky to have as a high school English teacher a wonderful priest named Bernard Horst. He taught us two great lessons of literature. The first was that if there was a wall in a story, “don’t be surprised if it turns out to be more than a wall.” It might turn out to be a symbol. But good symbols aren’t obvious, he said, adding this notion on behalf of artistic subtlety: “Remember, boys, a symbol need not be a cymbal.”
Don’t feel bad if you did not notice in the image of cop and barefoot man an evocation of Jesus humbling himself as a servant of his disciplines. Each of us brings our own autobiography to the reading of a story or the viewing of an image. I saw what I saw. In the spirit of Father Horst, I declare that “an allusion, boys and girls, need not be an illusion.”