For many young adults, connecting to the Catholic Church can be difficult. Whether it’s finding the theology to be rigid and fossilized, or having differing politics from the hierarchy, or feeling a general disconnection from the community, many young people are straying from their original religious affiliation. On the other hand, some young adults are finding empowerment and drive in their faith as a result of their contention with the church. This is the case for Gracie Morbitzer, a young Catholic artist and creator of a series of contemporary icons that she calls The Modern Saints.
Seven years ago, in 2015, Morbitzer found herself alienated from her church during her first semester at Columbus College of Art Design in Columbus, Ohio. Despite growing up in Catholic schools and being surrounded by a predominantly Catholic community, she was still on a personal journey to connect with her own faith and spirituality.
One day, Morbitzer came across two pieces of wood that reminded her of the art of ancient iconography. She decided to paint a portrait of Jesus, specifically the Divine Mercy of Jesus, on one of them. She finished the facial features of Jesus, but she could not decide what clothing to paint on his body. She left his shoulders and torso in a simple white t-shirt for the time being. During her time of contemplation, Morbitzer felt some connection to Jesus in this casual attire. With no definitive features or clothing, her portrait of Jesus looked like someone she could have known or even a friend she may have painted. She decided to keep her portrait of Jesus in his modern essence. Thus, the modern saints were born!
Soon afterward, Morbitzer painted a modern portrait of Mother Mary to accompany that of Jesus. She continued to stumble upon wood to make the paintings and painted a modern portrait of St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, leadership, and farmers, and a saint with whom she had a personal connection. These portraits were a source of inspiration and joy for Morbitzer.
She posted the three portraits to her social media, and her virtual and real-life communities had a similar reaction to seeing the saints with a contemporary portrayal. Friends, family, and members of her home church in Ohio began commissioning their favorite saints in Morbitzer’s modern style. From there, The Modern Saints developed into an actualized and ongoing project that has become a full-time business.
I came across The Modern Saints on Instagram about three years ago, and I have followed Morbitzer ever since. This fall, after a series of direct messages and only a few technical difficulties, I had the privilege of talking with Morbitzer over a Zoom call. She is still based out of Columbus, Ohio, running The Modern Saints and finding creative ways to bring her business to life. This project is still very much centered around the portraits of the saints and icons. My conversation with Morbitzer revealed three defining factors of her portraits that make The Modern Saints so special: the wood component, the attention to detail of ancient iconography, and (of course!) her modern spin on the saints.
All of Morbitzer’s portraits begin with a wood component. From secondhand stores to outdoor marketplaces, she collects wood of various textures and colors once serving different purposes, such as cutting boards, old pictures, or candle holders. Every piece was previously something else. This component of the variability of the wood is a metaphor for the saints themselves, for each painting has a different backstory and history of its own.
Morbitzer also has done a vast amount of research on ancient iconography in the midst of this project. She incorporates her modern style into the artform. One feature of ancient iconography that Morbitzer respects is to keep all of the names on the portraits in ancient Greek. She also uses the traditional element of a solid colored background. This serves as a symbol of the saint’s glorified state in heaven. Morbitzer explained that “this is an opportunity for [her] to express the saint’s personality or energy through a color.” This intentionality is a way to connect with the saint that she is painting.
The final and most important element of her portraits, hence the name of the project, is the contemporary portrayal of the saints. Morbitzer honestly admitted that the idea is not necessarily new. During the European Renaissance, various artists recreated saints and icons in the style of that period. In fact, many of the depictions of saints that we have come to recognize today were modernized during the Renaissance.
However, Morbitzer’s project goes beyond this, as she paints all of her saints not only in modern clothing, but as the correct ethnicity, age, and race from which they were born. She does research on the facial features, skin tone, and history of their place of origin in order to accurately depict them. This contrasts with the Eurocentric features portrayed on the majority of icon art throughout history.
Especially in today’s world of political unrest and the overwhelming cloud of social media, The Modern Saints brings a much-needed element of empowerment. Just as Morbitzer found peace for herself as a young person through her modern saints, the message of the project reaches to bring comfort to others as well. Her target audience is young people, specifically those in college. But her project has grown to touch people of all demographics.
Since starting her passion project seven years ago, The Modern Saints has grown into a full-time business for Morbitzer. She has developed and solidified her style of portraiture and averages twelve commissions yearly. Since her first portrait of the Divine Mercy of Jesus, she has completed over 150 saints and icons in her modern design.
Outside of commissions and selling prints, Morbitzer runs The Modern Saints’s social media and website with an interactive twist. All of the saints and icons are accessible in a digital gallery, accompanied by a short biography, a prayer, and sometimes an artist statement. You can also participate in her social media fundraisers or take a quiz to discover who is your patron saint. Morbitzer often engages in meetings and discussions to share how her project started and developed in hopes to inspire students interested in the arts or starting a business. For young people who remain within Catholicism, she hopes that seeing The Modern Saints will help encourage change in the church.
Gracie Morbitzer was a young spiritual person looking for an outlet, and her passion for art has turned into a purposeful adventure. She and The Modern Saints are an uplifting example of discovering new ways to connect with faith and find meaning.
If people can see people who are revered and who look like them, they might come to realize that there are role models who have been through the same experiences and struggles. A main message that Morbitzer channels through The Modern Saints is that you “don’t have to wait to be a saint. You can start wherever you’re at to find your real purpose.”