Advent in Art Talk
Fourth Sunday in Advent, Cityside Baptist, 20 December 2009.
The Annunciation - a painting by Alister Kitchen
By Derek McCormack
Alister, says he put the idea and shape of the painting together in one go, in a single sketch, pretty much as we see it now – which, without being flippant, I take to mean that we are looking at an inspired vision.
The painting is similar in style and rendering to a lot of Alister’s work: painted on an old piece of a house – in this case a piece of the wooden ceiling from his house where he’d done some remodelling. There’s still the hole in the middle where a light cord ran through. Often you can read a bit of the past life of the substrate for one of Alister’s paintings; some reference to it is typically left visible. In other works you can find, for instance, a saw cut running through the painting, or a sizable notch out of a corner, or the door handle still there. And in keeping with the building materials, the paints and colours are from the Resene house paint pallet. Alister is after all an architect when he isn’t an artist.
So there are these Alister things. But there are also many traditional elements and references to the work. The Marionite symbols, the Latin header and footer, and there is, from the Renaissance, the tradition of painting bibilical events into the settings and dress and customs of the artisit’s contemporary world. Which is why, now, many Western Christians often think of Jesus as a flowing-haired blondish slender chap, of the type that you might have found knocking around Northern Italy at the height of the Renaissance looking for a job as a artist’s model during that great flourishing of religious painting that we still revere today.
In the tradition of contemporary settings for historical religious events, Alister has a figure which we are to think of as Mary of the Advent, lying on the slopes of Maungawhau, dressed in the androgynous bohemian fashions of the Cityside crowd, with the dark threatening shadows of Auckland the super-city waving uncertainly perhaps threateningly in the background, the SkyTower thrust up like a claw, and in the mid-ground Cityside lit up for our attention, and the beautiful green hills of Taamaki Makaurau and the sea of the Waitemata surrounding everything.
The most eye-catching part of the painting is the motif in the upper centre - not representational but still contextualised to our world – the bird descending with wings in dive position with a strange yet familiar cluster of emblems with it. They look very much like a tattoo – it’s what they most remind me of anyway.
The bird is the kereru, the New Zealand pigeon. Maui the demigod of Maori legend was able to assume the shapes of other beings and the kereru was a favourite. Here the bird might be the form that the semi-divine angel bringing the message has taken. Or as our most dove-like native bird it could be a local manifestation of the Holy Spirit – which of course plays a miraculous part in the events close to those that are rendered here which are the Annunciation, or the Announcement to Mary by the Angel that she will bear a son.
The bird has with it – its not physically carrying them in beak or law – traditional symbols of Mariology – they are the cluster that looks like a tattoo. There is the lily, the piereced heart, and the circlet of five roses.
The lily is a common symbol related to Jesus – there are numerous biblical references to the Saviour as the lily of the valley – and also a symbol taken up much later than biblical times with Mary.
White lilies are among the most ancient of cultivated flowers. They appear on the wall decorations and in the carvings of many ancient civilisations – Crete, Assyrian, Egyptian, Roman – and it was the Romans that spread their cultivation throughout Europe.
A popular name of the white lily is the Madonna Lily – that comes from the Victorians but they take it from hundreds of years of association with Mary. The Sienese painter Duccio gave an early example of the when in the 1300’s he placed a vase of white lilies next to Mary to identify her and symbolise her purity. In Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting of the annunciation the angel holds out a white lily, which is for Da Vinci a treble symbol – 1) of Mary’s virginity, 2) that she will bear the Saviour, and also 3) of his home base, Florence, for which the lily was the official emblem. Perhaps the Angel is giving Florence to the Madonna in devotion and into her care. From these times, we have a vigorous tradition associating Mary and the lily, particularly at the annunciation, a tradition that’s lasted until now – in fact right now and right here in Alister’s painting.
And what of the Five roses around the heart? there is a 15th Century English song that sets out the meaning of this symbol. The song, still sung by some, goes – paraphrased heavily here:
Of a rose, of a rose is all my song
Five branches of that rose there been
Which be both fair and sheen
The rose is called Mary, Heaven’s Queen
Out of her bosom and blossom sprang
The first branch was great honour,
That blest Mary bear the flower [that’s the lily]
There came an angel from heaven’s tower
The second was of great might
That sprang on Christmas night
The star that shone over Blethlehem bright
The third did spring and spread
Three kings then the branch gan led
Unto our Lady in her child-bed
The fourth branch sprang to hell
The devil’s power to fell
The fifth branch is so sweet it sprang
To heaven both crop and root
Therein to dwell and be our bote [that’s salvation]
So blessedly it sprang
Of course, the roses around the heart are like a crown of roses – which is what rosary literally means – crown of roses – and the rosary prayer is traditionally grouped into sets of five mysteries or other fives
A dagger through the heart represents the sorrows of May as a Mother. In Mariology she might be described as Mater Dolorosa, Mother of Sorrows, and depicted with a pierced heart. There are traditionally seven sorrows, and often in the images of the mature Mary there are seven daggers or swords through her heart. Gruesome! Though rendered very tastefully.
The seven sorrows are events in the life of Mary as a mother.
One is the flight to Egypt to escape King Herod who was bent on killing her new child.
Another is the loss of the child on the return journey from the pilgrimage to the Temple when Jesus is twelve.
Another is the meeting of Jesus and Mary along the way of the Cross.
Then the Crucifixion, where Mary stands at the foot of the Cross.
The Descent from the Cross, where Mary receives the dead body of Jesus in her arms.
The burial of Jesus.
And these are all truly awful sorrows for a mother; to know that someone powerful is trying to murder your baby; to lose your child in a crowd or to have him go off and not come back – many of us know the deep anxiety and terror that produces; and then the terrible events of the Crucifixion, and finally to bury your own child.
But I have only mentioned six sorrows. The seventh is actually the first in time. It is the prophecy of Simeon over the infant Jesus – and it is from this that the swords or daggers are derived.
We read in Luke chapter 2 verse 25 on:
And, behold, there was a devout man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; he was waiting for the salvation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
And it was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Christ.
And he was led by the Spirit into the temple: and when Jesus’ parents brought Him to do what was required by the law Simeon took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, Lord now let Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word: for I have seen Your Salvation, which You prepared before all people; a light to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel.
Joseph and Mary marvelled at all the things which were spoken of the Child.
Simeon blessed them and said to Mary; Behold this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and to be a sign which shall be spoken against; truly a sword shall pierce through your own heart also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
So here the one sword is faithfully representing the prophecy of Simeon to Mary over her new born son. It is part of the gift of the angel and the Holy the Spirit.
The words that cap and toe the painting are like the words of the angel at the annunciation. ‘Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you.’ Apparently, Mary is not in the original – it just reads something like – Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you. It is almost a cry from the heavenly messenger to anyone full of the grace of God who would hear it – and Mary heard.
And the Christmas message is woven around people who heard call of the announcement that was broadcast and answered it: the shepherds who heard the Angels and went ‘to see this thing that is come to pass’; the foreigners who read the message of the stars in the East and came to worship the Child; Joseph in a different way, who heard something in a dream and changed his plans; and Mary who heard the Angel’s Hail! and answered: ‘let it be with me as your have announced’.
The words are also the beginning of the Rosary prayer – Ave Maria - Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of they womb, Jesus, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Latin is the language of the Roman expression of the Christian church and so the words are familiar in Latin as they are rendered here. And it is the Roman Catholic tradition that is most noted for its veneration of Mary – mostly shunned along with the other Saints by the Protestants.
The presence of the Latin words rings a different note to the contemporisation and familiarisation evident in the rest of the painting. This ancient language plainly connects us with the far-flung and the far-then – with the familiar sounding (we’ve all heard words like this) yet mysterious (what does ‘Te Cum’ mean? you might ask) – with otherness, with not-quite-apparentness, with not-yet-understoodness. The Latin words mark out the deep dark at the top and bottom of the painting – the unknowable dark from which the images descend and the unknowable dark on which they rest.
Otherwise, the elements of the Annunciation traditions are moved in space and time to be familiar to us, comprehensible, accessible, perhaps we might say, immanent. The heart of the Mater Dolorosa is rendered like a tattoo parlour image – as it might actually appear on a person as a physical reality. The angel of the annunciation – or perhaps the Holy Spirit - is the beautiful pigeon of our land Aotearoa that we might be lucky enough to see from time to time. And here is Mary set in our city – in our part of town – just up the road from our own church on the slopes of its nearest hill, Maungawhau, in this city of hills.
The slopes of Maungawhau are important in another of Alister’s paintings ‘The Transfiguration of the Appliances’, in which, in an unusual way, Maungawhau is marked out as a holy place in the contemporary materialist Auckland. Maungawhau is the highest mountain in Taamaki Makaurau and the nearest to us here at Cityside. A mountain is where in the biblical and ancient world one comes close to God. Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God. The Bible refers to the Mountain of the Lord, to Mount Zion. Jesus went up to a mountain to pray and it was on a mountain that the transfiguration occurred – where He appeared to Peter the Disciple as a Heavenly being with the prophets. That mountain was the Mount of Olives. Maungawhau means the mount of the whau trees, which is a nice parallel.
Of course, we Anglo people call it Mount Eden. And that used to be the name of our church, Mount Eden Baptist. So we might see Mary here on the Mountain of our Church.
The name Eden reminds us of the paradise, the garden made for Adam; a garden with a fascinating forbidden tree; the place of human beginnings and of the start of all human dreams; where a woman, in fact the woman, hears a voice that says, eat of the tree and you will not die, you will become like God. Eden is the place from where the great human journey that flows from that dream begins. It occurs to me that the strangest twist of the first Eden is reversed by the Advent. In the Garden of Eden, the woman came out of the man, out of Adam, with no part played by a woman, but by the work of God. And on this Eden, here painted, we see the contemplation of the reversal of that twist in which a man – whom the Apostle Paul calls the Second Adam – comes out of a woman in the normal way for humans except for the fact that there is no part played by a man; it is by the work of God.
Anyway, here we have Mary day-dreaming on the slopes of the mountain. I like the way that her hair flicks up. It might be lying on the bank behind her as she drops her head back; but, it suggests to me that it is in the wind, or the Spirit, or in an attitude of insouciance – Mary still untroubled by many things – or perhaps in a transport of deep thoughts that are flying out beyond as well as delving deep within. She’s lying back in a relaxed and confident attitude with her hands clasped behind her head, which is not looking at anything in particular, facing out of the painting somewhere, which is why I say she is day-dreaming.
Religious art typically depicts Mary with great reverence for her womanliness, her purity, and her gravity. So she is often young and beautiful, unmarked and untouched, or otherworldly, or regal in royal robes. Her colours are usually white for purity, blue for royalty and heaven – she is the queen of heaven to some – and red for the blood of her humanity that this miraculous conception has mysteriously combined with divinity.
But, importantly, here she is not royal or otherworldly or beautiful or even identifiable. She has no features at all on her face. She is any woman. In fact, I understand that it is only by the intervention of Alister’s wife, Adee, that she is woman at all. She was originally rendered as absolutely anyone. Apparently, according to Adee, at first Mary looked so awful that she encouraged Alister to repaint her with breasts to make it clear that she was female at least.
Though still, here in the painting, she is just ordinary. Not like the usual presentation of Mary. A woman. Any woman. Any person. Just one of us. Just you or me. In our setting. In our place. Caught in a moment of transport, of contemplation, of rapture, or just day-dreaming.
If we refer to the biblical story, we might imagine that she is in the moment that the Holy Spirit shall come upon her. Perhaps already knowing the message of the Angel – for the Angel said, ‘the Holy Spirit shall come upon you’. Perhaps she is day-dreaming about what she has been told; already pondering all these things in her heart – the Heart of Mary with its crown of roses and a sword piercing its soul.
Or perhaps she is just in a moment of pure being, before she knows anything of the announcement that will be made to her. Just being herself, open to the possibilities of life, in a day-dream - or if you prefer, a reverie.
In this painting of Mary and the Annunciation we find put together the legendary with the ordinary, the miraculous and extraordinary with the everyday and the everyone. We are caught in a dilemma by it – which way to go? There is a cognitive dissonance, in which two sets of ideas don’t go together. The great Mary, Queen of Heaven, one of a kind for ever and always, and the girl Mary of Nazareth or Mt Eden or wherever, whenever.
The hearts and roses, the songs, the veneration of our lady, the virgin, Mary mother of our Lord, Mother of us all, is understandable, but perhaps obscures a spiritual truth that this painting – for me anyway – puts back into the foreground. The truth, that when ‘love came down at Christmas’ – as the carol goes – it was not only to be with us – but also to be through us. Here with and through us wherever we are, in our ordinary time (don’t just think back then), in our ordinary places (don’t just think way over there), in our ordinary towns with our ordinary day-to-day and the ordinary shadows and doubts and fears still lurking there behind the angel’s presence and the pure heavenly sky; to be with and through us, whoever we are (don’t just think perfect holy purity), whatever we are doing.
And who are we to receive this and be the vehicle for this? Isaiah the prophet says, on behalf of God:
The bruised reed I will not break and the smouldering wick I will not snuff out.
God is patient, waiting for the dreamer on the slopes of Mt Eden, or in the Cityside building, or in the dark city behind, or in the backyards, with the family on Christmas day, with the happy or the sad, with whatever inadequacy, but with the human dream that goodness and love would be in the world somehow right now. God’s patiently waiting for that smouldering wick to burst into bright flame and shed a bright light.
The smouldering wick is here in the image of the young woman day-dreaming on the mountainside. It is as the carol says: ‘Lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb’. As the gospel writer says: ‘with God, nothing is impossible’. The Mary of the Bible is unheard of in her world, possibly not even in the line of King David as is claimed – not genetically anyway, that royal claim having been put in the gospel for spiritual reasons according to some commentators. Mary from the backblocks of a Roman-occupied Judea, from Nazareth, a village so insignificant that it is not mentioned in any historical documents of the time other than the gospels. Mary who will soon proclaim, according to the gospel, that she rejoices because God has lifted up the lowly and the rich, the great, the powerful he has sent empty away.
Perhaps what we see in this painting is the message that we are all able, wherever we are, whoever we are, to give birth, like Mary, to the second Adam into our world, to the God with us, to the Immanuel, to the object of the human dream that love comes down among us, the dream that we remember most at Christmas-time with abundance and goodwill and gifts and charity and childlike wonder and lights and happiness and comfort and joy and families united and welcoming to strangers and music and laughter and life – at least that’s the dream.
Perhaps we see that we are all reclining near that hole in the ceiling that represents that what’s above can get through to what’s below and vice versa, that hole where the light comes through – the light that as another carol prays might ‘be born in us today’. Do we see here that it might not only be born in us but born through us into the places, the situations, the families, the communities, the worlds that we inhabit?
Perhaps we might all hear the angel call, ‘Hail, full of grace. The Lord is with you’. Hail, full of grace, all of you, whoever you are, wherever you are. For we are all full of the grace of God.