Friday, January 11, 2013


Virgin Mary with Christ & John
When we are clothed  with the monastic habit in the monastery we also are given a new name. The Abbess or Prioress has had several years to "live with us" getting to know all sides of our personality- knowledge our parents do not possess when we are born- and tries to give us a name which we can "grow" into.

I have always been struck by the Native American tradition of renaming and in my search for saints with birds found this amazing artist, whom I present here. His struggles and sufferings in life certainly influenced his art as he strove to live out his name, just as we in the monastery strive to live out the new name given to us as novices.

NORVAL MORRISSEAU (b.1932) also known as COPPER THUNDERBIRD, was an Aboriginal Canadian artist. Known as the "Picasso of the North", Morrisseau created works depicting the legends of his people, the cultural and political tensions between native Canadian and European traditions, his existential struggles, and his deep spirituality and mysticism.

In accordance with Anishnaabe tradition, he was raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, Moses Potan Nanakonagos, a shaman, taught him the traditions and legends of his people. His grandmother, Grace Theresa , was a devout Catholic and from her he learned the tenets of Christianity. The contrast between these two religious traditions became an important factor in his intellectual and artistic development.
The Virgin Mary

At the age of six, he was sent to a Catholic residential school, where students were educated in the European tradition, native culture was repressed, and the use of native language was forbidden. After two years he returned home and started attending a local community school.

St. Rose Herself-my Spiritual Wife

In his late teens he became very sick. Fearing for his life, his mother called a medicine-woman who performed a renaming ceremony: She gave him the new name Copper Thunderbird.  According to Anishnaabe tradition, giving a powerful name to a dying person can give them new energy and save their lives. Morrisseau recovered after the ceremony and from then on always signed his works with his new name.

St. Joseph with Christ & John

In 1972, he was caught in a hotel fire in Vancouver and suffered serious burns on three-quarters of his body. In that occasion he had a vision of Jesus encouraging him to be a role model through his art. He converted to the apostolic faith and started introducing Christian themes in his art. A year later he was arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior and was incarcerated for his own protection. He was assigned an extra cell as studio and was allowed to attend a nearby church where he was struck by the beauty of the images on stained-glass windows. Some of his paintings, like the Indian Jesus Christ, imitate that style and represent characters from the Bible with native features.

He founded the Woodlands School of Canadian art and was a prominent member of the “Indian Group of Seven”.

As Morrisseau's health began to decline as a result of Parkinson's disease and a stroke in 1994, he was cared for by his adopted family Gabe and Michelle Vadas.

In the final months of his life, he used a wheelchair and lived in a residence in Nanaimo, British Columbia (as the eagle flies not far from our island). He was unable to paint due to his poor health and died of complications arising from Parkinson's disease. He was buried  in Northern Ontario next to the grave of his former wife, Harriet  ( with whom he had seven children), on Anishinaabe land.

Lily of the Mohawk (St. Kateri)
"I have always been attracted to religious paintings, but only the ones that had that mystical or supernatural quality in them, especially St Teresa by Bernini. Just looking at St Teresa I get some kind of vibrations from it. I can close my eyes and feel them. That's great art....But the Christ figure was always the one that was dominant for me.
Indian Jesus Christ

That's why I say that Christ to me is still the greatest shaman, and that is why some religious visions are so complex, and so very hard to explain to people. So whenever you are looking at my pictures, you are looking at my visions, whatever they may be." (N.M.)


  1. You have written a thoughtful article however its beauty is undermined by the first six images you display which are forgeries of his work. Read some of what Morrisseau had to say about such paintings and those selling them here.

    I suggest using the last three images which are well known authentic pieces and perhaps choose others from the authentic Morrisseau showcase here.


  2. NIce post! Beautiful Morrisseau paintings!