The Cross as Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is a vivid symbol in almost every culture. Trees are revered as life-giving, and signify renewal and regeneration. They are beneficent as well as wise. The crosses I’ve been painting and drawing are sprouting leaves, like Daphne the nymph who, in her desire to escape the amorous attentions of Apollo, asked to be turned into a tree. The rose cross was inspired by the Rosy Cross which is a symbol of the esoteric sect of Rosicrucians though I know little about them. I was more inspired by the phrase “rose cross” which made me think of adding flowers to the vegetation springing from these crosses. Some have female forms others do not. This is a rich and layered exploration of christian symbols, archetypes, and feminist art.

Madonna del Parto

There are several paintings I return to over and over, the glorious Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca is one of them and probably my favorite. It is at once simple and complex, modest and bold, reverent and earthy. The teenaged Mary steps forward as two angels hold back heavy brocade curtains, the tips of the fingers of her right hand inserted in a slit in her dress. That gesture, at the center of the picture, references the act of incarnation that Catholics believe is “immaculate” or sexless.

Madonna del Parto, Piero Della Francesca

Madonna del Parto, Piero Della Francesca

Piero painted this for the church of Santa Maria di Momentana (formerly Santa Maria in Silvis), in the hilltown of Monterchi. It was difficult to explain this sexless incarnation to peasants who toiled next to life and death all day and knew exactly how all manner of beasts and babies were conceived. Many painters from Fra Lippo Lippi tried, but perhaps this earthy, gravid young madonna, with her suggestive gesture, was comforting. Perhaps it gave the nuns something to smile about.

Some images influenced by the Madonna del Parto.

Cross paintings w additions

Last night I just painted and stopped anguishing about content, technique, frustration with oils- blah blah blah- and so a breakthrough of sorts- still the image of the cross but in oil with some charcoal and acrylic- both are still in process but relaxing into the medium (oil) allows space for subtle changes in representation. When I do that, I can feel how the medium wants to interpret content. When I use more familiar mediums like collage, gouache or watercolor, I rarely think about how to work or what to draw/paint, but with oils there’s still a lot of second guessing beforehand and judgement after.

These paintings are coming from sketches that are evolving the more I draw. Representations of celestial blessings–the half circles with lines at the top of the page–are morphing into  other images, in this case, udders.

My reading about cross symbolism is showing up in these sketches–melding with images I’ve been creating for a long time. Sketches are incorporating other, very ancient meanings of the cross unrelated to Christianity that venerated it as an emblem of Christ’s suffering and redemptive death. I’ll discuss those meanings in more detail later, but a quick list of some other meanings includes: the cross as tree of life, as the axis or center of powerful earthly forces, the union of the four elements, the center of the universe, a representation of the human body. I believe my desire–-at least for now–is to reclaim the cross as a symbol of fecundity, as a point of intersection between heaven and earth, as a tree of life. I was never interested in it as a symbol of suffering and redemption and even as a child, avoided it. I was intensely interested in stories and narratives about forgiveness and compassion, in symbols related to Mary, like the rose, or in statuary, sculpture and stained glass.


Sketchbook Ideas

How does one get ideas? Apparently watching histrionic black and white Vivien Leigh movies from the 30’s works for me (though last night it was 2 episodes of Fear the Walking Dead.) Vivien Leigh and zombies were conductive to making pencil and watercolor sketches. Individual pieces are small, no bigger than 3×5″.

Cross Madonnas

Using mediums has helped me ease into oil painting. I worked with oils a long time ago with a teacher who wouldn’t let us use thinners, mediums etc. and we learned to clean our brushes with soap and water. I used palette knives and came to like them, but I enjoy the fluidity of paints thinned with medium. The concern: I’ll just repeat what I do in watercolor, gouache and ink. A better understanding of the medium would open up other ways to make images. I also feel I still rely too much on “staying within the lines” when I make an underdrawing. Often the initial drawing  becomes part of the picture.

The two cross madonnas below are works in progress.

In #1 I mounted a handkerchief on stretched canvas then painted into it using gouache and acrylic.I have a pile of  handkerchiefs my mother has sent me over the years. I used to sew clothes by hand and on a machine, and make quilts. I’m always drawn to the tactility of fabric, the history and sentiments/emotions attached to old fabric. Louise Bourgeois’s small fabric pieces have always inspired me and I’ve kept my mother’s gift handkerchiefs with the hope of using them. Not sure this is the way but there’s something about the piece I like.

#2 started with the image from the sketchbook, and I drew a rough sketch of it on top of an acrylic painting on paper. Then I worked into it with oils, adding some imagery but also allowing previous images to inform choices. I like the hint of a woman’s leg and breast though (of course) not sure where this will go.

Below: pages from my sketchbook noodling and doodling about crosses, madonnas, insects, vegetation and maybe Carmen Miranda. The cross in the lower left of sketchbook 1 reminds me of a dancing, singing Miranda. Maybe another direction.. ? 🙂




Exploring the cross theme is richer than I imagined. I have yet to leap into creating a large piece on white canvas or paper, but I made a conscious choice to work over existing pieces (which satisfies my desire to re-use/re-purpose) and as I paint, I see how I relate to the underlying piece. Even if I “erase” it, it affects how I chose to develop the the image. And in pushing myself to work with crosses almost exclusively, I’m uncovering my relationship to it, and questioning what I consciously thought about it, while allowing myself to go down all sorts of paths and make all sorts of connections without censorship.

The 3 below were made the other day and are directly related to madonna figures I’ve painted/drawn that include vegetation. They have a solid, earthy quality.

The following are particularly exciting. The 2 on the left were made last week (and I admit they felt close to finished) but I worked into them. This action of “working into” a piece, or working with one image, has been especially hard for me to understand, in large part because my practice has been developing a light, quick and facile style. I’ve spent years developing a spontaneous, authentic line. But that mercurial style belies a restlessness thread in my work as well as my life. The good side of that quality is agility and an ability to adapt, but the flip side is difficulty sticking with, and committing to, a project after the initial bloom wears off.  I’m actually working very directly with that restlessness in daily life. This decision to do a graduate program has upended my life in ways I couldn’t predict, and restlessness is rampant, but just as I’ve made the commitment to be still and pay attention in day-to-day decisions, I’ve also committed to a similar art practice, and it’s finally making sense.

Now for my life to make sense. I actually doubt that “making sense” is even the point… 🙂



Cross Series and Beginning an Oil Painting

I worked in my sketchbook when I first went into my studio, played around with materials then drew the crosses above. This is the kind of line I love, done with a fat graphite pencil for marking lumber. And these crosses are morphing into trees-

I’ve been dancing around the idea of painting on white ground but something keeps bringing me back to working on top of old pieces. The originals below were quite large, done in an Experimental Drawing class with Robert Siegelman at the Museum School several years ago. I ripped up the originals into pieces roughly 20×30.” I liked them though never felt they were strong enough to stand on their own but always felt I wanted to use them as the base for new work. For a long time I thought I’d enhance the images in each piece, create new work based on images already there, but today I drew several of the cross images in white oil stick on three of them. The third image is still in progress and incorporates some of the background but doesn’t refer to it. I’ll work on the other 2 this week. I can see ways I’d like to incorporate shapes, colors etc. from the work beneath into a new piece.

This is the kind of image exploration that fascinates and pulls at me. I feel like I have to do this to get through to the next stage of working on plain canvas.

Today’s milestone– I finally felt comfortable handling oil paint because I understood how to use medium to get the paint to the consistency I wanted. I learned some basics looking at Youtube videos on oil painting. I see how oil glazes impart a luminous quality.