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Christmas through Crite's Eyes

By Sarah B. Cahalan

Allan Rohan Crite (1910-2007) is not necessarily a household name, but he was one of the most important creators of Christian art of the 20th century. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and later earned a Bachelor of Arts through the Harvard University Extension School at age 58. Over the course of his career, he worked both as a painter and as a printmaker (primarily lithography). Crite was brought up in Boston and was a devout Episcopalian. In his secular art, he documented Boston neighborhoods, especially Roxbury and the South End, and his own experience as an African American in a segregated city.

This work documenting everyday life in his community informed his religious work as well. One of his most famous paintings is at the Boston Athenaeum. “Streetcar Madonna” (1946) depicts the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus riding public transportation. Notably, both are Black, and the surrounding white passengers are, at best, oblivious to their presence; in at least one case, it appears to me that they are glowering judgmentally. The piece seems to ask, “How would Mary and Christ be received today? How would God choose to come among us today, and how would we receive him?”

The Marian Library holds several prints by Crite in a small collection of his work that includes test prints and works in progress. Among the works is a series of prints illustrating Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) in which the Holy Family appears to shift ethnicity and location from print to print; the prayer is handwritten in Spanish and English with occasional labels in French as well. These materials have not been fully documented or dated, and they call out for future scholarship, but I felt compelled to select one of Crite’s Nativity images for the Marian Library’s Christmas greeting this year. I hope more people will celebrate and share Crite’s legacy. In many ways, he feels like an artist who becomes more relevant every year.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, from your friends at the Marian Library!

— Sarah Burke Cahalan is an associate professor and the director of the Marian Library.


“Allan Rohan Crite,” biographical entry from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed 12/14/22.


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