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.
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.
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.
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.
Slogging along with these, though more connected to the one on the left. Both painted over other pieces but the next step is layering painted images on top of each other.
Gouache seems to be the intermediary medium for me at the moment. The one I’m using to experiment with these shapes and forms. I’m still layering on top of older collage pieces. It’s interesting to me that even though I’ve been a collagist for years, the concept of layering in paint has been difficult to apprehend. But I’m getting there.
At the moment drawing inspiration from Chagall’s complicated forms, layered colors and subject matter.
A friend sent me a review of Elina Gertsman’s book, Worlds Within: Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna, published by University of Pennsylvania Press this year. One look and I was smitten.
“In this truly multidisciplinary study of one of the most perplexing and beguiling of medieval visual traditions, the so-called Vierges ouvrantes, Elina Gertsman…. it brings together attention to the material and phenomenological specificity of objects and the theological, political, and epistemological dimensions within which they were created, viewed, and handled, or mishandled. One of the book’s most important contributions is its focus on the way the Vierges ouvrantes articulate a relationship between outside and inside, not just on an iconographic level but also and more importantly in terms of bodily process and passage. …Gertsman’s prose [is] finely balanced with the seriousness of her concern with the fundamental questions of how visual experience not only informs but actively shapes the way human beings experience physical, social, and psychic bodies.” —Alexa Sand, Utah State University
The idea of the sacred and profane body, inner and outer, and fragmentation are certainly themes in my work based on sacred images. My intention is to research and understand the history of that impulse, articulate it and create images with paint that evoke that.
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.. ? 🙂