On Illumination and Mary

In many ways the history of illuminated manuscripts in the West is the history of Christian illuminated manuscripts. The time and expense that the art form required meant that only the subjects deemed most important be illuminated, and at the time that largely meant Bibles and the attendant prayer books and breviaries.

That was part of what attracted me to this art form as a young, confused Christian artist. To me, this was proof that the history of my faith was long and complicated, that it had both influenced and been influenced by culture, and that its preservation had relied on beautiful images.

Most of my work has been based on the 13th century Morgan Crusader Bible, one of the most beautiful manuscripts ever made, and pretty indisputably a piece of pro-Crusade propaganda. Still, the book was so beautiful it eventually became a diplomatic gift to a Shah, and acquired annotations in Latin, Persian, and Judeo-Persian. 

So when I started on a series based on the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, I was excited. I had never encountered the practice of the Rosary before, and found it very beautiful. Having recently read Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of LadiesI was excited to see the Virgin Mary, the "Queen of Heaven" and Pizan's main argument for the the inherent goodness in women in an age where women were seen as corrupting and evil.

But when I showed the project to some friends who had actually spent time in the Catholic church, they were less excited. For them, the Rosary was not fun, and Mary was not empowering. After all, she is often depicted as opposed to Eve. Clothed and naked, obedient and disobedient, passive and active, virgin and mother, and, as it was and is extrapolated, Knew Her Place and Didn't.

 Image from the 15th century Salzburg Missal. Image from http://pre-gebelin.blogspot.com/

Image from the 15th century Salzburg Missal. Image from http://pre-gebelin.blogspot.com/

Of course, Christian interpretations of the Virgin Mary have roots in powerful pagan goddesses. She has the same signature color (blue) and title ("Queen of Heaven") as the Sumerian Inanna, and if she is the woman "clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars" in Revelation, well, that's a powerful image of a powerful woman. The final Mystery is the Crowning of the Virgin, Mary's triumphant apotheosis. 

That would require a straightforward gaze, a proud posture, a strength and resolve that would be a joy to paint. There would be fire and stars and blue! Except...

 From the Morgan Crusader's Bible, Fol 19r,  http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/

From the Morgan Crusader's Bible, Fol 19r,  http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/

 From the Morgan Crusader's Bible, Fol 7v, http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/

From the Morgan Crusader's Bible, Fol 7v, http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/


How can I paint a powerful woman in this style?

Stay tuned!



Morgan le Fay

Because most of my work is based on myths, legends, and scriptures, I wanted to expand my references a bit, and picked up The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, by Barbara G. Walker. It's been a great resource and a fun read, and inspired a little Morgan le Fay illumination. It was a bit more difficult than the illuminations based on saints, which have convenient symbols, colors, and attributes to use. For Morgan le Fay, I went with some symbols typically associated with darkness, nature,  and the feminine: a crescent halo, a raven, and a green dress. A clumsy effort on my part, maybe, but her varying roles as a goddess, antagonist, witch, and queen are all fascinating. 

The text is a mishmash of nonsense words, inspired by the stirring (but meaningless) theme song to the first Berserk film.

Inger is back!

It's been a long hiatus for our friend Inger. With the show at Pottery Place Plus and illumination classes, she's been on hold while I focused on her medieval counterparts. 

At the advice of Top Shelf, I've decided to start putting The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf online. You can see her here, and continue checking the blog for more updates as usual.

He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart

Misericordia eius in progenies et progenies timentibus eum.

His mercy is unto generations and generations on them that fear him.

Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui;

He hath showed strength with his arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart. 

deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles;

He hath put down princes from their thrones, 

And hath exalted them of low degree.

esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes.

The hungry he hath filled with good things

And the rich he hath sent empty away.

After the horrible comments made about Muslims early on in this election, I wanted to work in the style of The Morgan Crusader's Bible, which started out as pro-Crusader propaganda and ended up as a diplomatic gift from a Bishop to the Shah. It's a beautiful symbol of the unifying power of art, and the stories Christians and Muslims have in common. Further, I wanted to do a series on The Magnificat for its beautiful message, that God lifts up the humble and fills the hungry. 

It is hard to believe this after this election, because in this world the rich do win, the proud do succeed. And I understand that you could read these lines from the Magnificat either in celebration or for comfort depending on who you voted for. I think this is why Christianity and American democracy sometimes mix like oil and water; everything has many sides and many ways of reading.  

Sometimes there is a fine line between "what I believe" and "what I tell myself for reassurance." Maybe there is no difference. But I believe in a God that is on the side of the weak and the humble. I believe in a God that turns the wheel of fortune, where the weak and oppressed do not stay that way forever, and where the proud and cruel do not get away with it forever. 

Anyway, please forgive the doleful, ponderous tone...maybe I've been reading too much Latin! Peace be with you all.


Been working on the Nativity series based on the Crusader's Bible. I'm doing this project on Pergamenata, from the recommendation of Hillarie and James Cornwell, creators of Saints, Signs, and SymbolsPergamenata is great: it's a plant-based product made to look, feel, and work like traditional skin parchment. The finished art is much more durable, and you can even scrape off mistakes with an X-acto knife. Vegetarian parchment? Sign me up!

Several online reviews recommended rubbing the entire surface with an eraser to prepare the surface for calligraphy. Parchment products (and their vegetable-based relatives, I guess) have a thin layer of oil that can lead to ink just pooling on the surface into big nasty puddles. Even then, my pencil lines smudged a lot, rendering the side of my hand permanently shiny and gray. Nothing a bit of soap and water wouldn't fix, plus this meant the material could take layers and layers of pencil without getting frayed or gouged. 

Scratching off ink mistakes was something I had to do on just about every page (luckily usually just a wrong stroke, or a water drop that smudged some words), so considering how much work went into this series, I really appreciate not having to start from...scratch! each time.

The Pergamenata did buckle a bit under the gouache, and too much scraping or water would bring out the stringy plant fibers. Still, I really liked having a warm background for the miniatures, and having something that not only looks but feels medieval is exciting. Plus, this work contains zero baby cows! That's a plus.

Have a happy week!

A loving list of online archives

Edward Burne-Jones' illustrations of the works of Geoffery Chaucer

The Crusader Bible in excellent, zoom-in-able resolution

The Book of Kells, again in excellent, zoom-in-able resolution. 

More to follow, I'm just really excited about what the Internet just has for the taking. Thank you to all digitizers, all archivists, and all librarians who direct me to sites like these.