“He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.”
― Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
Everybody sees a different rainbow. There’s no rainbow there. What we think we see there is a product of a relationship of elements of which our perception is one. There’s no rainbow at all unless there’s someone there to see it. You could argue that everything is like that, some philosophers have.
When more than one of us share a space in which the conditions necessary for a rainbow occur, the perceptual apparatus of each of us may simultaneously complete the circuit – so that we share a sense of rainbowness while never seeing the same rainbow. As we all see a different rainbow it is no wonder that we all see something different in the rainbow. [I wrote more on rainbows ten years ago here: ‘RAINBOW keeps falling on my head’]
In the time of the virus, as I walk past houses, I see the windows newly filled with representations of the rainbow. Representations in different media, of different sizes, made by different hands, coloured individually or colour printed, sometimes with associated words, sometimes mute. While it’s conventionally the end of the rainbow that is mysteriously located and unknown, the mystery of these rainbows is where they begin. They too are a viral phenomena transmitted as easily by strangers as by family or friends.
One version has the rainbow begining with school children. They indeed started appearing in windows here when, in response to the coronavirus outbreak, schools closed in the UK. Apparently, schools are encouraging pupils to put up paintings to “spread hope” and “brighten up people’s day” Or perhaps just to create home schooling activities:
‘Our children soon won’t be able to see their friends. Create a rainbow picture to display in your window so that children can go rainbow spotting whilst out for walks.’
– Believe in Rainbows Facebook Group
Much of the British media traces it to Alice Aske, a mother from Somerset, who created a Facebook group called Chase The Rainbow encouraging families to tape hand-painted drawings of rainbows in their windows. Aske herself says she ‘spotted the idea online‘. Many rainbows were shortly joined by text: ‘NHS’ and/or ‘Stay Safe’.
The celebration of our emergency services was made essentially unpolitical, or depoliticized, by its conjunction with the rainbow. The celebration was kept to the simplest of gestures: primary colours, basic templates for colouring-in. The innocence of the child’s hand remained unsullied by the real and fierce debates that featured in adult conversation about how underfunding and unpreparedness had left NHS staff in danger.
It seems to have gone largely unremarked that there’s some prehistory to the public display of rainbows and their appearance in windows, a prehistory that was defiantly political. The Pride flag of the LGBT+ community has appeared as window decals in shops and venues as an assurance that the place beyond is a safe space, somewhere folk with identities beyond the hetereonormative might ‘stay safe’, free from abuse and discrimination. A public statement that builds on the long history of secretly safe places through Molly-houses, drag bars, pick-up places in parks, men-only clubs and more.
The use of a rainbow flag as a symbol of LGBT+ identity and freedom of expression was developed by the American artist and gay rights activist Gilbert Baker in San Francisco. Gilbert created it in response to a challenge from Harvey Milk to design a symbol of pride for the gay community. It had it’s first outing at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade celebration on June 25th, 1978. In his autobiography, Baker recalls how the idea of the rainbow came to him during a night out dancing at the Winterland Ballroom:
“Cleve and I danced the same way; we always raised our arms up over our heads, snapping our fingers like Diana Ross. We’d shake our hips like Tina Turner, acid cheerleaders twirling in psychedelic funkadelic circles.
The crowd was as much a part of the show as the band. Everyone was there: North Beach beatniks and barrio zoots, the bored bikers in black leather, teenagers in the back row kissing. There were long-haired, lithe girls in belly-dance get-ups, pink-haired punks safety-pinned together, hippie suburbanites, movie stars so beautiful they left you dumbstruck, muscle gayboys with perfect mustaches, butch dykes in blue jeans, and fairies of all genders in thrift-store dresses. We rode the mirrored ball on glittering LSD and love power. Dance fused us, magical and cleansing. We were all in a swirl of color and light. It was like a rainbow.
A rainbow. That’s the moment when I knew exactly what kind of flag I would make.
A Rainbow Flag was a conscious choice, natural and necessary. The rainbow came from earliest recorded history as a symbol of hope. In the Book of Genesis, it appeared as proof of a covenant between God and all living creatures. It was also found in Chinese, Egyptian and Native American history. A Rainbow Flag would be our modern alternative to the pink triangle. Now the rioters who claimed their freedom at the Stonewall Bar in 1969 would have their own symbol of liberation.”’
Gilbert Baker, Rainbow Warrior; My Life in Color (Chicago Review Press, 2019)
A relationship between the NHS and Baker’s rainbow flag also predates the recent NHS rainbows – in the form of badges worn by some NHS staff. Badges worn to display that the institution is an open, non-judgemental and inclusive place for people that identify as LGBT+. Whether that intention will now be obscured by the new symbolism remains to be seen.
The rainbow as a symbol of hope during the virus, was in the windows of Italy before the windows of here. Jedidajah Otte writes in The Guardian (12 March) that the ‘initiative appears to have been started by a few mothers in Bari, Puglia using Facebook, and then picked up across the country.’
In Italy it wasn’t bundled with the health service nor did it come with the ‘Stay Safe’ slogan. It was, however, commonly associated with another phrase: ‘andrà tutto bene’ – ‘Everything will be all right‘ as Otte translates it
Alessandro Vinci writing in Corriere della Sera on the 5th March, traced the use of this phrase, in a slightly different form ‘Tutto andrà bene!’ and accompanied by a love heart, to anonymous notes found in different areas of Lombardy; attached to places including church doors, bus stops, shop windows, benches in public parks, intercoms, etc. Later the phrase would fuse with the rainbows.
I heard in the phrase an echo of the words of the 14th Century East Anglian mystic Julian of Norwich: ‘All shall be well’. Words quoted by TS Eliot in his poem ‘Little Gidding‘. Those words are part of the line ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’ from her book Revelations of Divine Love considered to be the first known published work in English by a woman. Julian lived through the Black Death and after visions of the passion of Christ she became an anchorite, withdrawing from the world and living within a cell attached to St Julian’s church in Norwich. The historian and TV presenter Dr Janina Ramirez, author of Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History, has remarked:
“Julian was living in the wake of the Black Death, and around her repeated plagues were re-decimating an already depleted population.
“I think she was self-isolating. The other anchorites would have understood that by removing themselves from life this would not only give them a chance of preserving their own life but also of finding calm and quiet and focus in a chaotic world.
“I have never felt she was more relevant.”
Riccardo Maccioni writing in the Italian Catholic newspaper L’Avvenire (17 March) even goes so far as to suggest that the origin of the Italian slogan antivirus is indeed the words of Jesus as recorded by Julian. He reports how lines from Revelations of Divine Love appeared in an udienza generale with Pope Benedetto XVI of December 1st, 2010. The line of provenance remains a little unclear however. [My thanks to my colleague Elena Marcarini for pointing me towards the two Italian newspaper articles cited above].
Missing from the BBC and L’Avvenire coverage is Julian’s elevation as a queer saint. In her writings, she refers to God as mother and to Christ as ‘mother Jesus’ in a gender-bending understanding of the divine sure to disturb the feathers of RuffleCrow, the Mumsnet poster cited above.
In her preface to Julian’s Showing of Love (The Liturgical Press, 2003), Julia Bolton Holloway writes of Julian that she ‘shows awareness of the original Hebrew of the Bible in several places, not least the ‘All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well’ which translates ‘shalom’ better than does the Jerome Bible’s ‘recte’ and the Wyclif Bible’s ‘right’.
The Hebrew word for peace, Maria Boulding tells us, means far more than a truce amidst war, which is the sense of the Greek ‘irene’, the fleeting rainbow amidst storms, ‘shalom’ being instead a totalizing of wellness, goodness, oneness, Creation and Creator in harmony, universal peace.’
That nod towards peace also points us towards another rainbow flag, the flag of peace. A rainbow had appeared in the World Peace Flag of the Universal Peace Congress originally designed by Methodist minister James William van Kirk in 1913. The peace flag entirely consisting of rainbow bars was the product of the Italian peace movement. The pacifist philosopher Aldo Capitini was inspired by the British anti-nuclear marches to Aldermaston and their flags which used Gerald Holtom’s peace symbol. Capitini began the Perugia-Assisi Marcia per la Pace. Wanting their own bandiera della Pace he got some female friends in Perugia to sew together coloured strips of material for the March on 24th September 1961.
In the time of the virus, as I walk past houses, I see the windows newly filled not only with representations of the rainbow but with flags. A couple of weeks ago it was the George Cross displayed for St George’s Day, celebrating the English patron saint on 23rd April. Then it was the Union flag in preparation for today, 8th May, the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day celebrating the end of the Second World War on that continent.
That day was a day of peace, of European brotherhood and sisterhood, of the collective defeat of fascism and the dawn of accord and reconciliation across the continent. Sadly, these celebrations do not seem to nod towards a universal peace, nor speak of it as a pan-European event. Cloaked in a national flag, framed in national exceptionalism, heavy on the sense of being a victor, light in the sense of being a European – today can too easily feel…. Brexity.
But today, the 8th of May, is also the feast day of Julian of Norwich, a queer saint cloaked in a rainbow with a message of universal peace. I’ll end with words from her champion, TS Eliot:
‘This is the use of memory:
For liberation – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as an attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom.’
– TS Eliot, lines from ‘Little Gidding’