Story by Linda Harvey
Kibeho is a small town in south Rwanda that received international attention because of reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that occurred in the 1980s. Their messages included a vision of Rwanda descending into violence and hatred between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, foretelling the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The visions are represented in a painting of Our Lady of Kibeho, which Amber Knorr recently completed for the Holy Cross College Chapel in Notre Dame, Ind.
Surrounding Our Lady are three Black saints who have a halo: St. Martin de Porres, St. Charles Lwanga and St. Josephine Bakhita. The other three Black individuals depicted are in the process of being canonized as saints: Venerable Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Thea Bowman and Servant of God Mother Mary Lange.
“It has been great to research the saints and our religion, especially with it being so diverse in different cultures. It has been inspiring seeing how they lived and sacrificed,” Knorr says.
The painting is just one example of how the 25-year-old Lexington native — now based in Steubenville, Ohio — gives a testimony to her Catholic faith through her sacred art. She hopes her work will put people in communion and intimacy with Jesus Christ.
Witness to beauty
“Beauty is a way to evangelize, because you cannot argue with art. It invokes wonder and awe without judgment,” Knorr says. “I have two or three oil paintings going at the same time, since the paint has to dry before going to the next step. I will paint as long as the Lord wants me to do this work, and I am learning lessons in divine providence.”
Knorr was been greatly impacted by her family; she’s the oldest of five children of Anne Marie and Greg Pitts. Her mother’s brother, Michael Swerczek, was in a car accident in 1988, at age 20, which left him a quadriplegic who could not speak or walk, but could communicate through his eyes and smiles. Knorr’s grandparents, Mary Ann and Tom Swerczek, cared for him in their home for 22 years. He died at age 42.
“Seeing how my grandmother constantly prayed the Rosary and seeing images such as Our Lady, Christ and St. Thérèse of Lisieux formed much of my love for sacred art,” she says. “There were a number of priests who were like spiritual fathers who visited. My grandparents made it seem so easy in caring for my Uncle Michael and never complained. His suffering was for the greater good.”
Deacon John Brannen, director of youth, young adult and campus ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, remembers Amber when she was in the sixth grade in the Christ the King youth group.
“She is very gifted and did a mural on the parish band room,” he says. “From an early age, she has had a relationship with Jesus that shows in her work. I have two ordination gifts from her that I treasure.”
With Knorr’s interest in art and faith, she decided to go to the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, to obtain a degree in theology and catechetics before moving to Florence, Italy, for a year to pursue artistic training at the Sacred Art School. The figurative art school has a particular focus on Pope St. John Paul’s II’s theology of the body. She studied the human body and work with a master teacher, Ignacio Valdez from Seville, Spain, who continues to mentor her.
“He says not to forget to pray to this person you are painting, for it is important to glorify God,” Knorr says.
“I still remember the first time I saw Amber,” says Valdez. “She was painting a picture of the sinful woman kissing Jesus’ feet. … I was surprised to see that there was some mystery in the subject in the remorseful face of a sinful woman. So Amber stood out in the intensity of her work. Skill and technical level can be developed more or less, but what is more difficult is the mystery that a painting can communicate to the viewer, because it greatly depends on the spirituality and sensitivity of the artist’s soul.”
Knorr also has done some stained glass, statute restoration and painting on the wooden doors of a tabernacle. When she paints, she likes to use real people as models but also can work from photos.
Amber married Caleb Knorr over a year ago. Her art studio is in their home in Steubenville. Caleb has his master’s in counseling and is a child therapist and a photographer.
“We belong to St. Peter’s Parish and have a group of friends who call us to holiness,” she says. “It is rare to find other young couples that come over for a potluck and to say the Rosary.”
Amber and Caleb have found joy in their marriage and a spiritual community that pro- vides the grace for her to grow in her sacred artwork and inspire others.