“The Voice of the Beloved
‘I am the lover of purity and the Giver of all sanctity. I seek a pure heart, and there is my resting place. Make ready an upper room for me, and I will eat the Pasch with thee, together with my disciples. If thou wilt have me to come to thee and remain with thee, purge out the old leaven, and make clean the habitations of thy heart. Shut out the whole world and all the tumult of vices; sit as a sparrow solitary on the housetop, and think of thy excesses in the bitterness of thy soul. For every lover prepareth a place the best and most beautiful for her dearly beloved; since hereby is known the affection of the person entertaining the beloved.’” Thomas a Kempis, The Following of Christ Book 4,Chapter 12.
Thomas a Kempis, 14th century monk and author of On the Imitation of Christ, composed these words as instruction for how to ready oneself for communion. In his exhortation to be diligent in our preparations to receive Christ’s body into our own, he uses the language of Pentecost, painting the heart as the upper room. Through this season of Lent, we are preparing our hearts to receive anew the risen Christ, come Easter. Next Sunday we celebrate Palm Sunday, the occasion of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.
There is yet another feast that commemorates the preparation of our inner selves to receive our LORD. The Solemnity of the Annunciation recalls when the Angel, Gabriel, appeared to Mary:
“And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The LORD is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name his Jesus.’” Luke 1:29
And Mary conceives by the Holy Spirit. The Word made flesh.
The Annunciation is a moveable feast. Traditionally, March 25th is reserved for it, but when this date falls in Holy Week (as it does this year), it is moved to the first open day after Easter. Nevertheless, it often falls within days of Palm Sunday. I find this proximity curious. Of course, March 25th is 9 months before December 25th, so many might call the Feast of the Annunciation’s proximity to Easter accidental, but I prefer to call it Providential. It is a tonic to the bitter dramatic irony of Palm Sunday, when we hear the people calling out, “Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest!” knowing that within a week their cries of joy will turn to shouts of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” When we celebrate the Annunciation, we contemplate the moment of the incarnation of the Saviour of the World. On Palm Sunday, the Son of Man entered Jerusalem. On Pentecost, His Spirit entered the Church. And on Sundays, indeed, whenever we take the wine and the bread, He enters us. At the Annunciation, the Son of Man entered the world.
Consider Mary, full of Grace, exemplar of faithfulness. What did she do to be considered so worthy as to carry the Son of God in her very body? The Medieval legend of Mary is that she grew up in the porch of the Temple, a child given to God. In Medieval Altarpieces and Illuminated manuscripts, like the one on your bulletin, she is shown in a small gazebo-like structure, known as a gloriette. She is nearly always accompanied by a book on a lectern, often visibly open the work of the prophet Isaiah. She is in blue robes, the colour of the Jewish priest’s robes, signifying proximity to heaven, wisdom in the knowledge of God’s will. A lily stands between her and Gabriel. This flower, frequently taken to represent her purity, also serves as a visual device to indicate that the scene captures the moment of her belief in the Angel’s message: According to folk legend, a jew and a gentile were sharing a pot of wine. They fell to debating theology. Doubting the truth of the incarnation, the jew said, “I’ll believe in the incarnation when a flower sprouts out of this wine pot.” So there is the lily, sprouting from a wine-jug, not a vase, in front of Mary to represent the overcoming her turbulent doubt.
In the painting on your bulletin, part of an Altarpiece, now in Dijon, painted by Melchior Broederlam in 1399, the pink dome at the back is the Jewish Temple. [[All the buildings in my source images are imagined. They were not yet placing biblical stories into contemporary dressing, (that was the invention of the Flemish Primitives). What I love about the art of the Gothic era is the freedom afforded to craftsmen and artists. They operated within strict systems of proportion and symbolism, but were allowed full creative range when it came to carving capitals or filling the margins in a manuscript. The gothic mind made up fancifully symbolic structures to house these miracle stories.]] The dome shape here is like no structure anyone in Medieval Europe would have known. Instead, it would have read, to the medieval eye, as exotic, oriental, Jewish. Contrast this with the porch in which Mary sits reading: it is clearly Gothic with it’s delicate stone tracery, pointed arches, and sets of ornamentation arranged in orders of three (for the trinity). Why has the artist painted the temple in two distinct types of architecture? It is because at this moment, the moment of her belief in the incarnation, Mary becomes the first Christian. The Domed Jewish temple represents the Old Covenant, in which we lived under the Law. The Gothic porch represents the New Covenant, in which we are saved by faith. The message here, and the focus of my work, is that the way of life is through faith in the incarnation; that we cannot adequately sweep out our hearts, which are the Temples of the Holy Spirit, according to any laws. The Voice of the Beloved continues:
Know, nevertheless, that thou canst not satisfy for this preparation, but the merit of any action of thine, even should thou prepare thyself thus for a whole year together, so as to think of nothing else.
Mary was raised in the Temple, reading the Prophets and waiting on the High Priests. How could we have any hope of aspiring to her worthiness? These means of training and discipline are simply not available to us anymore. Indeed, they do not exist! I ask myself the same question as an artist when I contemplate images like the one on the front of your bulletin, I wonder: How can I even hope to create something with so much careful detail? Something so rich in symbolism, yet legible to all? I have not been apprenticed since the age of 8 or 9. I was raised on television. My attention span, indeed, our very brains are not what they were 600 years ago. I am not a monk working in a scriptorium, living under a vow of silence and celibacy. As a mother of two small children, I am anathema to such a life! Nevermind that. We are not saved by our own works. Mary, like Abraham, was made righteous by her belief.
As a Contemporary Artist (as opposed to a Modern, or traditional artist), I am not interested in skill and verisimilitude because though I strive to, I cannot shut out “all the tumult of vice,” and I would rather not pretend that I can. If there is not a tumult of vice particularly active in my life, there is always the tumult of children, housekeeping, and digital media. I am responding to our Secular age by gesturing ds the historic and sacred. In my work with Medieval altarpieces and Illuminated Manuscripts I treasure up and ponder religious images from the past. I render them in an earnest but haphazard style that refers to our own Zeitgeist. My paintings give voice to the frustration of attention, and dissolution of belief in our time, while nevertheless occupying the space of a faithfully copied sacred text.
I believe that the Annunciation and the incarnation are sacred ideas that will touch all who draw near. Like the Medieval monks in the scriptorium, my artistic practice is an outgrowth of my Contemplative practice, and I believe my paintings are equally endowed with the aura that accrues to the study of holy things. My paintings are the residue of a contemporary contemplative exercise. I copy the architectural forms from Medieval manuscripts and altarpieces to draw near to spaces prepared for the occurrence of the miraculous. Removing the figures opens the spaces for reflection on by all viewers, not just those initiated into sacred stories of our tradition. By converting religious images made for an entirely Christian audience into personal images of my own heart, I make the sacred legible to a pluralistic society.
And I depend on grace to complete my works.