Orlando Martyrs in Triptych for the 49 by Tony O'Connell

One year after the massacre at the Pulse gay bar, the Orlando martyrs are remembered in tributes in the LGBTQ community, including a major new piece by British artist Tony O’Connell.

A mass shooter killed 49 people and left 53 wounded on June 12, 2016, at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The hate crime / terrorist attack was the deadliest act of violence against LGBTQ people in U.S. history. It was also America’s deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter.

One of the newest and most spiritually powerful artworks about the Orlando martyrs is “Triptych for the 49,” a mixed media piece by gay artist Tony O’Connell of Liverpool. It is a shrine shaped like three-part altarpiece. The artist is mounting images of each martyr on reclaimed closet doors, along with queer saints Sebastian and Joan of Arc as “wrathful protector saints.”

O’Connell is working to finish it in time for a private showing on the anniversary of the massacre on June 12. A public exhibit is being planned for later this year. The artist will keep posting updates and new photos of “Triptych for the 49” on O’Connell’s Orlando Martyrs Facebook page as he completes and exhibits the work.

A variety of events are planned to mark the first anniversary of the Orlando massacre, including a global virtual Pulse Memorial Service being held at Joy Metropolitan Community Church in Orlando. It will be broadcast through Facebook Live at 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (11 p.m. GMT) on Monday, June 12. The memorial service will commemorate the lives lost and recommit to acts of justice and compassion.

Digital sketch of “Triptych for the 49” by Tony O’Connell

Digital sketch of “Triptych for the 49” by Tony O’Connell

“Triptych for the 49” shows spiritual artistry

The Orlando martyrs speak to society today through Tony O’Connell’s art. “The world has changed very much in my life but Orlando reminds us that we are all still more vulnerable than polite liberal straight society would like to admit. I think every gay person must have been scarred by the massacre because it reminds us again that there is hate specifically directed at us,” he explained to the Jesus in Love Blog at Q Spirit.

In his new creation, O’Connell made haunting digital images with blue haloes inside Gothic window shapes framing the faces of each person who died in the Orlando shooting. He will arrange them in rows on the central panel, flanked by the guardian saints on two hinged panels. Gold leaf ornamentation adds to the air of sanctity. The whole triptych stands almost six feet tall.

The repetition of the format for all 49 faces allows the individuality of each victim shine through. The viewer’s heart and attention are drawn here and there to connect with different souls: the one in the pink shirt, the one with tattoos, the one with the bowtie…

Detail from “Triptych for the 49” by Tony O’Connell

Detail from “Triptych for the 49” by Tony O’Connell

Like standard religious icons, they gaze directly into the viewer’s eyes, seeming to invite conversation. Icons are traditionally considered to be “windows to heaven,” and O’Connell’s commemorative altarpiece provides a glimpse into a queer hereafter.

It is no accident that O’Connell made his shrine to the Orlando martyrs out of wood once used as closet doors. “At some level coming out of the closet is always a revolutionary act of courage because each LGBT person knows on whatever level that the choice to come out could invite potential rejection, or violence or even worse,” he said.

Rainbow haloes indicate that the large figures guarding the martyrs are LGBTQ saints: Sebastian Joan of Arc. Sebastian is a favorite theme in O’Connell’s art and spirituality. He re-enacted the saint’s martyrdom with a sculptural Sebastian to condemn violence against LGBTQ people in a 2015 performance art film. It included a “Litany of the Queer Saints.” He may write a new litany for the Orlando martyrs.

Saints Sebastian and Joan of Arc from “Triptych for the 49” by Tony O’Connell

Saint Sebastian (left) and Saint Joan of Arc from “Triptych for the 49” by Tony O’Connell

Raised Roman Catholic, O’Connell was rejected by the church when he came out as gay in his teens. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1995. Much of O’Connell’s work deals with affirming the holiness of LGBTQ lives.

O’Connell’s art is popular with readers of the Jesus in Love Blog., where his work has been featured several times. The most popular post about O’Connell’s art is “Reclaiming sainthood: Gay artist Tony O’Connell finds holiness in LGBT people and places.”

Orlando shooting happened on “Latin Night”

The Pulse was hosting a “Latin Night” on the night of the massacre, so most of the victims were Latinx, Many were gay, lesbian, transgender or queer people, ranging in age from 18 to 50. Among the dead were same-sex couples who died together and a mother of 12 who was dancing with her gay son. Media reports suggest that some kept their sexual orientation or gender identity private until they were “outed” by news of their murders.

They included students, churchgoers, immigrants from many countries and native-born Americans. They had jobs such as accountant, bouncer, entrepreneur, banker, pharmacy tech, travel agent, store clerk, apartment manager, professional dancer and theme-park ride operator.

The gunman also died at the Pulse. Police shot and killed Omar Mateen in a three-hour standoff after he shot the victims and took hostages. The Pulse nightclub site will become a permanent memorial and museum.

Anthologies aid Orlando survivors

Many other artists have also created tributes to the Orlando martyrs. For example, artists and writers from the comic book industry turned the tragedy into art with the book “Love is Love: A Comic Book Anthology to Benefit Survivors of the Orlando Pulse Shooting.” A long list of contributors uses art to mourn those killed in Orlando, support the survivors and celebrate the LGBTQ community. It was published by IDW Publishing in cooperation with DC Comics.

Poets joined together for a different book with a similar title and approach: “Love is Love: Poetry Anthology in Aid of Orlando’s Pulse Victims and Survivors.” Edited by Lily Blunt, it brings together more than 50 LGBTQ and straight allies from around the globe. They celebrate love and acceptance in the face of the hate, bigotry and senseless violence of the Orlando shooting.

Martyrs of Orlando adapted from “Gay Mourning Flag” (Wikimedia Commons)

Other acts of violence and harassment at LGBTQ bars

Before Orlando the deadliest U.S. attack on LGBTQ people was the UpStairs Lounge fire, which killed 32 people in New Orleans on June 24, 1973.

Sadly both of these mass murders came during LGBT Pride Month, which marks the 1969 Stonewall rebellion at another gay bar: the Stonewall Inn in New York City.

Martyrs are those killed for a cause. May the souls of those killed in Orlando be welcomed to heaven by the LGBTQ saints and by history’s many queer martyrs who were killed for their sexual orientation or gender expression.

Memorial image trending on social media

Links related to the Orlando martyrs

Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) Pulse Memorial Service Toolkit
‘They Were So Beautiful’: Remembering Those Murdered In Orlando (NPR.org)

Litany for Orlando by Yvonne Aburrow (Dousing for Divinity)

Pulse: The Orlando Shooting and the Intersection of Multiple Violences by Hugo Córdova Quero (gemrip.org)

Top image credit:
Blessed Frank Hernandez (left) and Blessed Deonka Deidra Drayton from work in progress: “Triptych for the 49” by Tony O’Connell

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Qspirit.net presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Kittredge Cherry

Kittredge Cherry

Founder at Q Spirit
Kittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author who writes regularly about LGBTQ spirituality.She holds degrees in religion, journalism and art history.She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer, advocating for LGBTQ rights at the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.
Kittredge Cherry