Eve as Mary

As I thought about the image of Mary I realised pretty quickly that I would need someone to model for me. The problem is I don’t know any young teenage girls and it would be quite inappropriate for a man in his thirties to go seeking one out.

But somehow, sometimes, when we seek to be creative and open ourselves up to possibilities then God/the universe/the collective conscious* responds in kind (*delete as appropriate). The day after I began agonising over how to find a model my friend and line manager Rachel visited the studio with her twelve year old daughter Eve. Once I had explained the project Eve readily agreed to model for me.

Here is one of the preliminary sketches I’ve made:

 

Eve

Eve is bright and wise, just on the cusp of womanhood as Mary was. It was inspiring to hear her thoughts about the annunciation and how she felt Mary would respond (In all of my conversations about this piece, as I explore this ever more intractable story, I am very conscious that as a man I am an outsider looking in to a woman’s experience) .

It is intriguing to have ‘Eve’ portraying Mary, two of the most significant people in the Biblical story. Both Eve and Mary are archetypal characters, resonating throughout history in so many different myths and stories, resonating deep in our human consciousness (Carl Jung based a lot of his work on these concepts). As I reflect on Eve as Mary it’s like holding two transparent images together up to the light or seeing two stained glass windows, one through the other.

Both are hugely significant women – one has been celebrated by the church as the pristine virgin bringing hope and salvation into the world; the other is the weak willed temptress who leads Adam astray by offering him the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil after God warned them not to. Both of them have been used by men in the church to subjugate women throughout the centuries.

I said a few weeks ago how I found Phillip Pullman’s re-interpretation of the annunciation story helpful – provoking questions about Mary’s virginity for a start. In his ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy he also breaks open the myth of Eve. Here Eve’s decision to disobey God is the path to human autonomy and free will. This is a Trickster story. The Trickster is another archetypal figure who often acts in morally ambiguous ways but whose actions result in the opening up of new potentials and possibilities for human beings. Due to Eve we don’t do good or evil things because we are told to by an all powerful God but because we choose to by our own volition.

So in holding the stories of these two women together Mary’s virginal robes become a little grubbier and yet she becomes more real, I would say more holy. Eve moves from being a symbol of seduction, tempting man away from all that is good, to a woman who – like Mary – opens up pathways of hope and freedom.  

Two women, two freely made decisions, one saying ‘yes’ to God and obeying, one saying ‘no’ and disobeying. Both break open the world in a heroic, risky and creative manner. Both show us examples of what it might mean to be fully human.

 

 


 

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The Creative Vacuum

So I bought the canvas for my painting of Mary – I went for the biggest I could find 1.0m x 1.5m, it only just fit in my car. I always feel this is such an exciting moment, seeing a vast empty space buzzing with potential. Here it is:

Canvas

The blank canvas contains all possible images if one has the skill to reveal them; the empty space full of infinite creativity. It reminds me of the recent advances in science where physicists have discovered that even a perfect vacuum* – devoid even of a single atom – actual bubbles with energy, matter flitting in and out of existence in the space of unimaginably small fractions of time. So the fabric of reality seethes with creative energy (see the all-knowing Wikipedia for an introduction to this fascinating area of human knowledge).

I know, however, that if I look at the blank canvas for too long the excitement will turn to fear – choices have to be made. How do I decide which image should be mined from all the latent images on its surface? And do I have the skill to retrieve it?

Seen from another perspective, though, the image is already in me. And I am far from being an empty space – my mind writhes and pulses with all manner of images and experiences. One of them will reach towards the canvas.

At the interface between the seething mind and the latent canvas is the conscious ‘I’. I have to make the decision to pick up a paintbrush, to choose one colour over another, to make that mark on the canvas instead of the other. Hence, it’s through the physical things of this world, muscle and bone working together with canvas, linseed oil, pigment and brushes that the unseen becomes seen.

Because of my limitations as a human being this will be far from the perfect image I see in my minds eye – but perhaps it will be all the more beautiful for it.

 

* what a lovely word with its double ‘u’

 

The troublesome story of Mary

I went for a drink with a good friend of mine who was a fellow student when I was training to be an art therapist.

Emma* is a superb artist; she has a brilliantly insightful mind and has done a lot of work on the sociological and cultural history of the role of women and how their bodies are perceived. I still have the blanket she made for her project on the history of women and mental health that she left with me by mistake. It’s a remarkable object depicting the female reproductive system in textile (I don’t currently have it on display as it’s not quite in keeping with my décor).

I asked her for some technical advice regarding the painting of the Annunciation that I am attempting and she was interested in the story. So I gave her a quick summary of the events; Mary, a young teenager gets a visit from an angel to tell her she’ll have a baby etc etc. It’s strange how, when told in a different context a story can feel so different. At the children’s nativity play it’s a rather endearing tale with blue tea towels and tinsel halos but as I told the story in the busy pub I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable and Emma seemed more and more unsettled.

“What a horrible story” She said when I’d finished.

I reviewed in my head whether I’d told it right because it had sounded horrible to me too – but no, I’d said pretty much what the Bible says.

I’m grateful for the insight that someone who comes to the story afresh can bring. The Christmas story is so overlaid with cultural assumptions and church baggage that it can be hard to get to the raw narrative underneath.

So why so horrible?

Firstly the notion of God impregnating a young teenage girl (and Emma recalled talking to people in the middle east who’s mothers had been 12 or 13 when they’d given birth). From the perspective of 21st century westerners this really seems quite sinister.

Secondly the equating of virginity with holiness and purity as if a woman is sullied by having sex. I guess this reflects a patriarchal society involving concepts of ownership and inheritance etc. Some of the original texts in the Bible do contain just about enough ambiguity so that we can genuinely ask the question of whether Mary really was a virgin. Nevertheless, over the centuries, the Church has elevated this to an important article of faith – forever preserving Mary’s purity by insisting on her virginity (and it’s men on the whole who have done this of course).   

I think the first problem can begin to be met when we see that Mary had a genuine choice – she really could have said ‘no thanks’. There is no coercion and her ‘yes’ is a freely giving over not only her whole life but also her body in its most intimate parts to the bringing of life and hope. But even so the story is still unsettling.

The second problem is harder to answer, and I tend towards Emma’s view on this. Is there any reason why, in the 21st century it is appropriate to use a story that conflates virginity with purity? I wonder whether those of us who would see this story as an important aspect of our faith need to explore it for different symbols of holiness and ask the question: does it really matter whether Mary was a virgin at all?

I’m mulling these things over as I begin some preliminary work on my painting of the Annunciation which I will post about tomorrow.

 

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Something about Mary

I have been asked to contribute a piece for an exhibition during advent that tells the Christmas story. The scene I have chosen is the annunciation. I find something compelling about the character of Mary in the gospels and this piece  will sit as a counterpoint to the work I did this Easter on La Pieta which you can see here (spray paint on broken hoarding from the site of a demolished school):

 

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A few years ago I visited Buckfast Abbey in Devon and I remember seeing posters there for an organisation that was campaigning in the Catholic Church to have Mary recognised as co-redemptrix, intimately involved with our redemption as human beings. At the time I dismissed this as ridiculous, even a little cultish but now I’m beginning to see their point (maybe that means my belief system is becoming ridiculous and a little cultish too, but there you go).

 

There seems to me to be something about Mary that is more accessible than the figure of Jesus. She has a strength, a warmth, and a sense of being grounded in the reality of life. Thinking of her I am reminded of a Catholic woman I stayed with on a council estate in Peterborough many years ago (who’s name I forget unfortunately), she had a whole gaggle of children in her home and was one of the holiest people I’ve ever met. She worked damn hard and had such a warm and hospitable manner – her eyes shone with life. So, whilst Jesus might feed his followers by miraculously turning a packed lunch into more than enough for 5,000 I can imagine Mary warmly welcoming me into her house, busying herself in the kitchen, helping me feel at home, and perhaps getting Jesus to do the washing up as we all chat after the meal.

Whilst La Pieta shows Mary at the end of Jesus’ life, cut to the heart with grief, the Annunciation, 33 years or so earlier, is the beginning. It is a sensuous moment of terror, joy, incredulity and serious, gutsy faith. The more I think about it the more awe-inspiring task it seems to portray it, so I’m not quite sure what tack I’ll take with the piece at the moment (although I do like Phillip Pullman’s ambiguous approach in his book ‘The Good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ’  where the ‘angel’ is portrayed as a young man sneaking into Mary’s window one night).

 

I’ve got just over a month to finish the painting so will keep posting about the blood sweat and tears that usually accompanies making a piece like this – which will be nowhere near the literal blood, sweat and tears that Mary went through of course.