25 September – Feast Day of Saints Eusubius, Peregrinus, Vincent, and Pontian

Little more is known of today’s second-century saints than the manner of their dying: “stretched on the rack, beaten with clubs, burned, then beaten to death with lead-tipped whips.”

An altogether damnable way to treat one’s fellow humans; yet one is pained to recognize the continuity of suffering that man imposes on his sisters and brothers.

The video at this blog post’s beginning records the seconds leading up to, and following, the extraordinary recent terrorist attack on Mexican soil (and honor) by fellow Mexicans –
the tossing of a grenade or two into the central plaza of Morelia, Michoacan, during the annual “Grito” cry for independence, this past September 15.

Annually, Mexicans gather in their town’s central square shortly before midnight, at which moment the cry of “Viva Mexico” resounds through the land and, most profoundly, through the people’s hearts.

This year, in Morelia, just after the cries for freedom, there sounded the thud of a fragment grenade, tossed into the crowds, and ridiculously murdering eight mostly young persons, and critically injuring dozens more of all ages.

We reel, fully off-balance, wounded in our hearts, grasping at any manner of understanding this most un-Mexican way of bringing death to one’s brethren.

Where, and who. are we?

The questions reverberate through our hearts and conversations; and answers are hard to come by.

What is most noticeable, however, throughout the video (which is not, i assure you, bloody or invasive), is the humanity, dignity, and respectful proportionality with which the victims comport themselves.

Shortly before the video’s end, one hears the National Anthem begin its pre-recorded broadcast: a reminder of how casually and naturally one responds to tragedy:

There is no break with protocol; society’s decorum is never broken or threatened.

Viva Mexico!

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Published in: on 26 September 2008 at 12:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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15 September – Feast Day of Our Lady of Sorrows

detail of Santa Maria Road
detail of Santa Maria Road

Sometimes a story will arrive to fill a void. From the beginning of my time working on All the Saints it was my goal that it not be seen as “capital C” Catholic, but as “lower case c” catholic: that is, not institutionally religious, but drawing from and encompassing many cultures and experiences.

 

Still, because All the Saints clearly riffs on traditional Christian/Catholic imagery, I occasionally sensed a discomfort among Jewish friends, which gave me pause and occasioned a sense of personal artistic regret. I hoped for a way to illuminate our tortuous history together; a way to honor the ways in which the symbols I was using had caused so much pain.

 

I found the path on Santa Maria Road.

 

Santa Maria Road, as I wrote in my book, “arches north and eastward off Topanga Canyon Boulevard,” where it is defended by “Restricted Entry” signs; and, after passing through a shady glen of horse ranches, becomes “a dirt and dusty pathway into the southwestern reaches of the San Fernando Valley.”

 

When I stood, caked in Santa Maria’s dust, gazing into “this canyon of willow and sage,” I thought of one of several saints named Santa Maria: Saint Mary of Egypt, an early – and rare female – mystic hermit, who dwelled in the wilderness for forty years, her clothes worn away in decades-long penance, her body covered by her long tresses. It was easy to picture Mary of Egypt enraptured in this near-wilderness, and I couldn’t wait to return to my studio to portray her.

French miniature of Mary of Egypt
French miniature of Mary of Egypt

Unfortunately, a bit more research provided a historical source for the road’s name. Jesus Santa Maria, a Mexican settler from the 1870’s, endures on this sole Topanga Canyon road sign. Jesus lived in Topanga for decades, “hauling cords of manzanita into [Los Angeles] via the circuitous route of the period: north from his ranch to El Camino Real (now Ventura Boulevard); and from there, southeast into El Pueblo.”

 

Now my Road had a namesake; what it needed was an origin for Jesus’ last name. Wondering how someone acquired a last name like Santa Maria, I phoned one of my advisors on All the Saints, historian Stafford Poole, whose focus is on life in Colonial New Spain.

 

As fate (or the saints) would have it, Father Poole had recently researched this very theme – the naming practices of New Spain – with an emphasis on the Sephardic Diaspora. Indeed, he had just given a presentation on this very topic.

 

Father Poole informed me that nearly all Mexicans with last names such as Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, or Santa Maria are descended from the forced converts – conversos – from Judaism to Catholicism during Spain’s and Portugal’s periodic medieval pogroms. Forced to convert and take on uber-Catholic names, and still expelled from their home countries in 1492 by King Ferdinand (Yes, it wasn’t just Columbus who set sail that year), many became “Hidden Jews” who, over time, assimilated and adapted, integrated or reinvented themselves, into anti-Semitic societies in the New World.

 
 
I thought of Our Lady of Sorrows, La Virgen de Dolores, one of the more empathic depictions of Santa Maria, for my painting; and I thought immediately of my friend Doris for my model – a dear friend of many years, whose face traces her life’s experiences.

 

 

As it happens, Doris, who is Jewish, has always joked that I should portray her as a saint; now I was about to invite her to let me do just that:

 

“Doris,” I began the phone call, “Remember how you always want me to portray you as a saint?”

 “I want to be the Virgin Mary!” she startled me.

“Well,” I considered, “That’s actually why I called – but first let me tell you the story and see if you still want to do it.”

 

After I related the history of Santa Maria Road, and after Doris and I had a good cry, she insisted that she had to do this; and we set a date for me to photograph her.

I think the resulting painting – her haunting visage as Our Lady of Sorrows, drifting above “this pilgrim’s dirt path, a Road affronted (as Jews have been for centuries) with “Restricted Entry” signs” – is perhaps my finest portrait. It certainly conveys the pain and endurance hinted at in its tale.

 

As we prepared my All the Saints exhibition for the Autry Museum, Doris confided that she was herself a hidden Jew: her parents elected to hide their heritage to facilitate assimilation into the Navy and a Wasp-only government society. Only in college did Doris discover – and embrace – her true inheritance. Her parents had erected “Restricted entry” signs on the branches of their family tree.

 

 

04 September – Feast Day of Santa Rosalia (la Santuzza)

Santa Rosalia Interceding on Behalf of Plague-Stricken Palermo, by Antony an Dyck
Santa Rosalia Interceding on Behalf of Plague-Stricken Palermo, painting by Anthony Van Dyck

There’s a special wonder to Rosalia’s legend. Even the faithful declare that she “died alone, in 1160, ending her strange and wonderful life unknown to the world“, and that “Nothing was heard from her again until 1624.”

From my story, in All the Saints of the City of the Angels,  for Santa Rosalia Drive, in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles:

In 1624 the Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck traveled to Sicily at the invitation of the Spanish viceroy. While he painted portraits of the Genoese aristocracy, the Black Plague raged across the countryside.

 

At the same time a hunter lost on the mountains above Palermo saw the vision of a young woman who told him her name was Rosalía and that she had died in a nearby cave 464 years ago.

 

Rosalía’s remains were brought into Palermo, her hometown, and the plague ended; she was declared a saint and named patroness of the region; and Van Dyck was commissioned to paint her portrait.

~

Why should, how could, her bones lie undisturbed in a cave above Palermo – a town of over 130,000 – for four and a half centuries? And how did a Flemish court painter, working “from musty bones and fervent spirit” make of it all such art?

 

Published in: on 4 September 2008 at 9:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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1 September – Feast Day of Good Saint Giles

a sweet little prayer left at my exhibit

a sweet little prayer left at my exhibit

It’s a pity there are no streets named for Saint Giles in L.A.; he’s an attractive character. 

His chief visual attribute derives from the animal-lover’s legend that there was a hind who was his dear friend (yes, sorry, that was intentional), and who nourished him with her milk.

Giles was living the hermit’s life off in a cave, and the hind was his only visitor. One day a royal hunting party spied the hind and followed her to the mouth of the cave. They fired an arrow into the cave, but the arrow struck Giles’ hand rather than his hind, as he protected the latter with the former.

The iconic depiction of this event transposes us from the interior of the cave to just outside where, in a composition not unintentionally echoing the Nativity, the king kneels before Saint Giles as he shelters his hind.

The Medieval mind would find much there to contemplate, ambling from Giles’ cave to Bethlehem and back.

But another of Giles’ legend attracts, for it connects (at least in my rambling mind) to some of what I’ve experienced during the months that All the Saints has been on display at the Autry Museum, here in Los Angeles.

some of the thousands of prayers left at my show

some of the thousands of prayers left at my show

We designed an alcove in which two of my paintings are displayed as though they were in a small chapel; there is a shelf on the side wall with a pen and little cards that feature the All the Saints frame; visitors are invited to write on these and leave them on the community altar.

I didn’t really know what people would write – or if they actually would use them – but over two thousand cards have been written on and left among the battery-operated votive candles.

They speak to a wide range of concerns people harbor, from jobs and healthcare to the war in Iraq (sounds like the election, doesn’t it?); but they do so, almost every time, on a personal, intimate level that evokes a person’s real and troubled soul.

Some of the most charming are written in a child’s hand; many express grief over a lost pet – Giles would understand, I’m sure.

But I mentioned another legend about today’s saint: it is known as “The Mass of Saint Giles” and was depicted in Van Eyckian detail by the artist known as the Master of Saint Giles. Supposedly, Charlemagne had committed a sin of which he was so ashamed that he could not being himself to utter it in confession. An angel delievered a note describing the confessed sin to Saint Giles as he was conducting mass: the sin was forgiven.

While the legend may convey several important lessons – no sin is unforgiveable, even great people are capable of great error – it also underscores the benefit that can be derived from getting something troubling out of your head and onto a scrap of paper (Ah! the benefits of writing!) and setting it out there, anonymously perhaps.

On some level I like to think this community chapel installation in my exhibition addresses this need; and in so doing, it levels the playing field by showing how similar we all are in our hearts’ core.

Published in: on 2 September 2008 at 4:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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