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/

OH GOD THEIR NECKS. WHY WILL NO ONE STAND UP STRAIGHT.

How can I paint a powerful woman in this style?

Stay tuned!