Finding My Religion

The Conversion of St.Paul on the Road to Damascus
2019
Oil on canvas
48 by 36 inches

I recently finished two new works, one a drawing which I made recently on the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15th), the other an oil painting of Paul’s epiphany on that road to Damascus so long ago. I’m becoming increasingly aware of spirit entering my life  ( I do not know what else to call it) and my work. It has been subtle, random spontaneous prayer, something I neglected since boyhood; sneaking into churches furtively and unnoticed ;  but most especially instances of incredible awareness, of a sense “rightness” at the most curious of moments. I don’t know what it is but I do know it is welcome and increasingly welcome in the studio as well. 

  I’ve always been drawn to sacred art, I collect it, I seek it out whenever I travel, David and I are drawn like moths to a flame whenever we encounter some beautiful chapel, church or cathedral. Yet I have resisted calling myself religious, and God forbid anyone calls me “spiritual”- milquetoast yoga clad , CBD ingesting, kale juicing  LA dilettantes come to mind.  But now my symbolist art is becoming increasingly sacred, and sacred in a decidedly Christian way. Not I hope in that pedantic , lock-step fundamentalist sort of way but in the best way, a very personal way, the way one hears and feels the spirit. No one else can depict those ineffable moments of presence but oneself and they cannot easily be explained or depicted, but art making and poetry are frequently very evocative and satisfying.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
August 15th 2019
Colored pencil on toned paper
24 by 18 inches

My interpretation of Paul on that road is at best quirky, perhaps too much so, too personally esoteric…but I must paint as I see it. Christ is front in center, in some strange pompous vehicle, wearing some odd pointed crown of thorns; poor Paul, mid-strangle of some hapless Believer, looking up in wonder and shame ; and as always , in the background and foreground , are we, the unenlightened, unable to witness the sacred in our everyday.

I say “we”, I mean “me”.

 

Detail: The Conversion of St.Paul on the Road to Damascus

I’ve ornamented this bearded fellow with Greenmen, primal gods, folk treasures and a Fool. Although seeking something beyond the realm of the ordinary, I wanted to acknowledge the sacred qualities of being of the world.

The Fool is all seekers, of which I count myself. Seeker Fools, Holy Fools, wether ready for it or not; latent or actively seeking or somewhere in between. I predict many Fools in new works to come.

Of religious art I was taken with what I felt a very British approach to the sacred on my recent holiday visit to the Tate Britain. There in the dizzying galleries devoted to all that is best in British art,I was struck by the sheer numbers of works depicting Christ, the Magdalene, Virgins here and there, and just an over all presence of spirit (Blake of course comes readily to mind).  But these works, unlike their counterparts issued  from the Church of Rome were highly personal, some oddly so, as cryptic and as wonderful as some newly discovered Gospel.

As an example I suggest Stanley Spencer’s monumental The Resurrection, Cookham. In this detail shot, Spencer himself, nude as our Lord made him, languidly awaits his Savior.

Detail: Stanley Spencer’s “The Resurrection, Cookham”, 1924-7

For a sense of  the scale of  this fantastic painting, this image, with Jacob Epstein’s strangely beautiful Virgin from The Visitation, 1926 in the foreground.

 

Perhaps being a Protestant nation, British artists were more inclined to “own” the Christian narrative in their work as they feel able  to interpret the gospels for themselves. I don’t know for certain of course but it was strikingly apparent that these works , of which there were many, expressed an inner life, richly experienced. 

This seems a long standing tradition, although theoretically familiar with John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents ( The Carpenter’s Shop), I hadn’t realized until close inspection how unorthodox a painting it  really is. Christ, so young, so fair, so in need of his mother, the tenderness she exhibits as she tends to a superficial wound, the precursor to the Wound. Blood drips upon his bare, grubby little feet, again a foretelling. The painting is astonishingly rich in symbolisms, details I hadn’t been aware of from reproductions. In truth I’ve never liked this painting much, that is until actually witnessing it ; too Protestant, I had foolishly thought, not properly “sacred”.

I no longer think that.

Detail: Millais’s “The Carpenter’s Shop” 1849-50

But for highly personal visions of the divine one returns to Blake.

William Blake
“The Body of Christ Born to the Tomb”
c.1799-1800

Increasingly I feel Blake to be the strangest, most influential and most  prescient artist. Although I don’t think that it was the case, I always sense that the work just rushed out of him, painting one might say  in the Tongue of Pentecost. I don’t think that was true, that he was in fact quite a deliberate artist, but it is a tender image of the man. 

Of Blake’s perennial influence, one cannot neglect Cecil Collins, and although from what I read he loathed to be compared to Blake, the influence of spirit is hard to overlook. Collins has become in his own right quite an influence to me. I feel a kinship to the work and to the man, I especially like this quote where he speaks of the Fool. It reverberates with a sense of rightness :

The saint, the artist, and the poet are all one in the Fool, in him they live, in him the poetic imagination of life lives.

Cecil Collins
“The Sleeping Fool”
1943
Tate Britain

Back to my own stabs at personal spirituality, I came upon this photo of early work,  from the early 80’s , back in those halcyon summer days of my youth,  spent on Deer Isle Maine painting very strange, frankly ugly paintings onto the most forlorn  cast off furniture I could find, which in turn was peddled to upstanding Boston Brahmans summering in Blue Hill ( a very respectable gallery gave me several solo shows, nearly all sold out- I was astonished). I haven’t a clue as to where this peculiar table ended up, I imagine once the buyer came to their senses they tossed it to the curb. Happily I have this crappy snapshot which provided compositional inspiration to my Assumption drawing above.

Assumption Sidetable
1984 (?)
The Conversion of St.Paul on the Road to Damascus
2019
Oil on canvas
48 by 36 inches

 

Author: babylonbaroque

I am a painter and printmaker working towards creating a body of work that reflects my own developing aesthetic. New work ,first link. The second link is an on-line portfolio.

4 thoughts on “Finding My Religion”

  1. Such a fascinating essay. We are so complex.i did my Honors thesis at Bryn Mawr on Gerard Manley Hopkins whose poetry I loved from first exposure freshman year. Had a photo of him in my room which my friends thought was hilarious since I am an agnostic. But I still adore him and Blake and all the art in your essay and am blown away by your completed painting not just artistically but spiritually thanks for writing this

  2. Very interesting post, so many ideas.
    That room with Spencer’s painting is my favourite room in Tate Britain. I loved ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’ from the first sight. I always visit this painting whenever I am in the building, every time I notice new details. Spencer is simply inimitable.

    1. Please pardon my not responding sooner . Yes , that Spencer room is astonishing , and his Resurrection such a favorite . When I look at the photos on my phone from the trip my heart just aches . Hoping to get back soon. Until that time please visit Spencer’s painting in my place and share with me what you discover .

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