From traditional times Māori arts have been strongly orientated to the representation of ideas. Through these, arts communities have been put in touch with their spiritual roots.
Gathering and preparation of the materials was conducted under ritual conditions, the tools were consecrated for the task and the artists themselves worked under conditions of strict tapu. Art was not purely decorative but made symbolic statements of metaphysical realities.
When communities converted to Christianity it is not surprising that the art tradition should begin to express the new ideas that came with the missionaries. Well-known examples are the two Māori Madonnas, one held in the Auckland Museum and the other in Te Papa, which are almost certainly from Catholic sources.
Both show Mary with the full facial moko more appropriate to men. These are not meant to be portraits of Mary, but to convey the idea of her virginity. A woman with this moko would be of such intense tapu that she could not be touched by a man.
The stories of these two sculptures are unclear but they are said to have been carved for the Catholic church at Maketu. The Auckland Museum figure, thought to have been carved about 1840, was rejected by the priest because it would give offence to Pakeha Catholics.
It is said the carver subsequently abandoned the Catholic faith to join the Ringatu church. The Te Papa figure may have been carved as late as 1895 but little is known of its history. It has been suggested it represents the Immaculate Conception, but there is no record of it ever adorning a Catholic church.
As more and more churches were built in Māori communities in the 19th century the traditional arts of weaving, tukutuku and scroll painting became popular media for decorating them and their furnishings, but figure sculpture was largely prohibited. The great church Rangiatea, opened in 1850 at Otaki, was devoid of any carving until a carved pulpit and altar rails were added in later renovations.
In recent times Māori artists including carvers have been very inventive in the way they have developed their arts to express their Christian faith.
The pou whenua figure at the entrance to the Catholic Centre in Wellington is a familiar example.
Tukutuku panels in Sacred Heart church in Petone are another example. The Rt Rev Hapai Winiata, the carver who became an Anglican bishop, developed his signature ‘weeping eye’ motif to express Christ’s compassion for humanity.
Perhaps the most interesting use of Māori motifs to express a Christian concept is to be found in the newly opened St Joseph’s parish church on Mt Victoria. The architectural plan incorporates the koru motif in association with the cross to signify change and growth in the parish community as well as opening out to the bicultural value of inclusiveness.
The role of Māori artists whether traditional or contemporary, will become more significant as the church of the archdiocese becomes more aware of its bicultural commitment. Like the koru itself the indigenous arts have continued to develop offering a great reservoir of motifs and designs for church architecture, decoration and furnishings.