Inspired by a museum visit

In the Asian department of Leiden’s Museum of Ethnology you find this decorated ceramic plate. It shows floral and geometrical patterns, as well as a garden and landscape. Blue and orange – complementary colours, are predominately used. There are four quarters and more areas filled with sceneries that stand on their own. Perhaps more artists worked on this ceramic plate because the decoration seems to show different styles. The blue chrysanthemums are close-up; the mountainous landscape adds depth. Studying the different elements and patterns one feels enchanted a long time.

ART AND CULTURE LOVING MUSEUM VISIT

There is always something in a museum that inspires. At least, that counts for me. Whether I visit an exhibition on shamans, a scientific department with preserved animals, an insectarium, planetarium, or aquarium, fine arts, or an anthropological exhibition, something will speak to me.

The interesting thing is that you have no idea beforehand which object, story or atmosphere, or even a part of a building, will grab your attention and fill you with inspiration. All you have to do is visit a museum and open up. Inspiration might be overwhelming when you stand in front of the eminently displayed Nike of Samothrace in Paris Louvre. Equally so, it can be kindled by an object as small as the Alfred Jewel in the Ashmolean, Oxford.  Sometimes inspiration is not presented through the storyline or ancient objects of an exhibition. It might be the museum building itself that emerges you in an Art Deco atmosphere and consequently inspires you.

HOW TO VISIT A MUSEUM FOR INSPIRATION?

There is something essential you have to do, or perhaps, do not. You should not refrain yourself from feeling happy to visit a museum instead, you should feel grateful for being able to enjoy a carefully curated exhibition. Yes, gratitude and excitement are perfect emotions that do not interfere with inspiration. But what does interfere with inspiration are pre-existing ideas of what you are going to gain from visiting a museum, a gallery or exhibition. Leave all expectations at home. Step into the Medieval mindset that inspiration comes from God or is whispered in your ears by angels. Museums often are quiet, mindful places that make a visitor susceptible to ‘hearing’ angels’ whispers or to feel touched by an object or the perfect execution of fine art skills by one of a well experienced or highly trained artisan or artist.

Even when you have visited many floors, enjoyed a lunch in the museum café, or sauntered through the museum shop, you might not have an idea what inspired you. The whispers might be very subtle and not easily detectable amidst the excitement to be confronted with art, excellence, or originality. But just before you are about to put on your coat ask yourself; ‘What spoke to me?’ or ‘Where in the museum should I have lingered longer?’

INSPIRATION STRUCK  

There…there you sensed inspiration. Something interesting or beautiful ‘spoke’ to you. It whispers in your mind; ‘Will you stay with me a bit longer next time?’

Inspiration is a beautiful thing. To me it isn’t a thought or a feeling. It is a whisper that can become rather loud once it has sunken into your soul. It has a timeless quality; some whispers stay for weeks, others ignite your artistic fires for years. See here how art inspires to art (making). How art lives on weeks, decades, years after those who practise highly developed artistic skills left behind their artwork. Art seems to be born from this never-ending stream of inspiration, enhanced and carried by those willing to learn skills and deep focus.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

This Asian ceramic plate in Leiden’s Museum of Ethnology grabbed my attention and with much joy and interested it inspired me to draw two large mandarin duck compositions. Perhaps you can find the elements that inspired me in my mandarin duck paintings? (Click to enlarge the pictures)

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

at Etsy

at Instagram

Art Study Joachim Sandrart

Joachim von Sandrart was a German Baroque art-historian and painter, active in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age. He is most significant for his collection of biographies of Dutch and German artists the Teutsche Academie, published between 1675 and 1680.
ART STUDY

A chalk and ink drawing by Joachim von Sandrart of ‘Baden van Diocletianus’ Rome 1631, owned by Neurenberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum prompted me to make a graphite drawing. I replaced Sandrart’s human figures with resting sheep. Two of the human figures were so small, I only noticed them whilst drawing the third arch. I drew the two sheep as small as Sandrart drew his human figures emphasizing the grand scale of the ruins.

The ink drawing interested me because the ruins show – from the perspective art-historian and painter Sandrart took- a series of arches. This repetitive perspective creates depth but also creates a drawing full symbolism. We feel that some significant events are like passing a gate. We have replaced one place or lifestyle for another, never to return. Our lives consist of walking from one place to another, transforming ourselves, accepting changes.

When I was young the characteristic Romantic element of downscaling humans and exaggerating nature, felt a bit disturbing. Now, 2020, I love it. We should go back to feeling smaller in importance and respect nature and natural forces more. The idea that we are dwarfed by nature is a good one, much better than the illusion that we can dominate nature. We have to accept that changes are inevitable and are often felt as something life throws as us, something big, and overarching”.

A GIFT

This drawing serves as a perfect gift for somebody who loves classical drawings or the Dutch Golden Age in which artists left their studios to travel to Mediterranean landscapes. Also, for somebody going through life changes, transformations, or spiritual growth. The two resting sheep show is that we do not have to hurry through live. Times passes; we should relax even admits life’s turbulences.

Should you have any questions, feel free to contact Paula.

NEDERLANDS

“Een krijt- en inkttekening door Joachim von Sandrart van ‘Baden van Diocletianus’ Rome 1631, eigendom van Neurenberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum zette me aan deze ​​grafiet-tekening te maken. Ik verving Sandrarts’ menselijke figuren door rustende schapen. Twee van de menselijke figuren waren zo klein, ik merkte ze pas op tijdens het tekenen van de derde boog. Ik tekende de twee schapen even klein als Sandrart zijn menselijke figuren tekende en benadruk zo de grote schaal van de ruïnes. De inkttekening interesseerde me omdat de ruïnes laten zien – vanuit het perspectief van de kunsthistoricus en schilder Sandrart – een reeks bogen. Dit repetitieve perspectief creëert diepte en ook een tekening vol symboliek. We voelen dat sommige belangrijke gebeurtenissen zijn als het passeren van een poort. We hebben de ene plaats of levensstijl vervangen door een andere, om nooit meer terug te keren.

Toen ik jong was, voelde het karakteristieke romantische element van het verkleinen van mensen en het overdrijven van de natuur een beetje verontrustend, overweldigend. Nu, 2020, ik vind het geweldig. We zouden ons weer kleiner moeten voelen en meer respect hebben voor de natuur en natuurlijke krachten. Het idee dat we bij de natuur in het niet vallen, is prima, veel beter dan de illusie dat we de natuur kunnen domineren. We moeten accepteren dat veranderingen onvermijdelijk zijn en vaak worden ervaren als iets groots en overkoepelends.”

De originele tekening heeft een Kadinski passe-partout. Het is een passend cadeau voor iemand die van klassieke tekeningen houdt, of van de Nederlandse Gouden Eeuw waarin kunstenaars hun ateliers verlieten om naar Mediterrane landschappen af te reizen. Ook voor iemand die door een verandering of transformatie, of spirituele groei gaat is het een passend cadeau. De twee rustende schapen laten zien dat we ons niet hoeven te haasten. Mocht u nog vragen hebben, neem dan gerust contact op met Paula.

The Baths of Diocletian were public baths in ancient Rome, in what is now Italy. Named after emperor Diocletian and built from 298 AD to 306 AD, they were the largest of the imperial baths.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

mindfuldrawing@gmail.com

At Etsy

At Instagram

The Sorcerer of Trois Frères, Ariège France

Let me introduce The Sorcerer discovered in 1960 in Ariège, France. He has been regarded a mythical figure, a shaman, leading a ritual dance. The fact that he directly looks at us as if he is interrupted, is remarkable. Why is he doing that? My method of getting to know him better is through drawing him and paying attention to what I observe during the process of drawing. This I combine with reading about him. I will never be able to see the Sorcerer, thus I fully depend on reference photos and interpretations by the man who set out to show the world all cave painting by sketching, Henri Breuil.

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The Sorcerer in Trois Frères, Ariège, France

By looking at these two images, a controversy becomes immediately manifest; is Henri Breuil’s drawing a reliable copy or is it his interpretation? This has been hotly debated but I won’t go into this. I trust Jean Clottes who has asserts Breuil’s drawing after having seen the original perhaps over 20 times over many years.

Breuil’s drawing is however problematic, even if it is a truthful copy of the original rock art drawing. I start to draw the Sorcerer, scaling it up in size, working on his head. It is said that the sorcerer isn’t a shaman, it isn’t a human; it is a composite figure bringing together many drawings of Ariège cave. Here we see, the antlers of a stag, the ears of a wolf, the face of a deer, the eyes of an owl, the beard of a bison, the claws of a bear, the pose and the tail of a rearing horse, and the (hind) legs and genitalia of a man.

Drawing Sorcerer’s deer face, I run into trouble with the position of his eyes and ears. The position of the neck in relation to the head and ears is flawed. Equally flawed is the neck of the body in relation to the en-profile position of the face. A face that looks at us over one shoulder would show only one ear, the other would be obscured, visually missing, which is not the case with the Sorcerer. The antlers seem to be incorrectly positioned as well; in case a (horse or human) body is rearing to the front and the head is turned, looking to the viewer full face, then the front antler would seem bigger and the antler more positioned to the back would look a tiny bit smaller, as is not the case with Breuil’s drawing. In fact, the back antler looks bigger! This leads to the conclusion that the head is distorted. Either the painter had this in mind or as cave art is palimpsest art, meaning that paints are re-used, altered and traces of early paintings are often visible in later versions, the compositional flaws could be caused by many artists working at this piece of rock art over a long period of time.

The Sorcerer by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
The Sorcerer by Paula Kuitenbrouwer. The cave wall is suggested by using Conté. The drawing is done with graphite and charcoal.

The second feeling of unease that I experience whilst drawing the Sorcerer is related to the difference in style and skill regarding the head and the body. The body of the Sorcerer is very well done. We see a well proportioned horse body with a waving tail and strong human legs. But what about the head? The bison beard has no movement; the antlers seems to be done by somebody lacking drawing skills. Thus I wonder how this composite head would look like (drawn by me in this case, but I invite you to do the same). Whilst drawing all the animal attributes, I observe that this composite figure has portrayed very well chosen and formidable animal qualities. Is this portrait then an obituary to a very charismatic shaman?

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The Sorcerer’s composite head by Paula Kuitenbrouwer

The Sorcerer shape-shifts in many animals, most of them mammals. With the superior eyes of an owl, he perhaps isn’t looking at us, but trying to find his way back, through the dark, to his human body and to his community who has gathered deep inside Ariège cave.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

On Etsy

@mindfuldrawing on Instagram

Forest Scene: Mandarin Ducks Resting on a River Bank

The mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata) have carefully chosen a place to rest. They seems to blend in with the dark background, thus if necessary, they will respond quickly by taking to the waters and thus escape predators. The river is calm, the forest is rich in sounds and smells, and all is well. The reflection of the lovely couple is visible in the calm water. Birds are flying over. 

The duck and drake have just decided to take a rest and have already positioned themselves on the bank. The duck is checking the left, the drake checks the right, if all feels safe they will soon tuck their bills into their wings and take a nap. After that they will look for food again, synchronized as they are. They are life long partners, like swans. In Asia mandarin ducks represent love and loyalty. On the photos of this drawing, you will notice a few wooden ducks. They are used, in Asia, like drawings, prints and paintings, to enhance feelings of love and loyalty in homes and rooms between couples. Seeing bonding ducks, seeing how synchronised they are, makes people long for a deep belonging, a deep bond between lovers.

This is a softly rendered graphite drawing. On my Etsy home page and Instagram you can watch a video of the making of this drawing. I have done many Mandarin duck commissions for homes, weddings, engagements, stationary, or meditation/sleeping rooms. Contact me should you have specific wishes regarding a mandarin duck drawing. Also, have a look at my shop where you will find mandarin duck mini-prints, cards, and full colour drawings. May I advise to have a full colour drawing of mandarin ducks in a monochromatic coloured room and a softly rendered graphite drawing in a colourful room?

Artist information: Derwent graphite H-series pencils on Arches hot press paper 31-41 cm. Winsor & Newton Varnish Spray.

Ornithological information: Although Mandarin ducks are Asian ducks, Dutch park and estate owners buy these ducks to add some bright colours to their duck ponds or castle moats. Mandarin ducks then need nesting facilities because in nature they breed inside tree cavities. They seem to do well in Dutch weather. I am very lucky to have spotted them nearby my home town. One thinks that they stand out splendidly, but I can assure you that even the very colourful drake often seems to blend in its surroundings perfectly.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

@mindfulfdrawing on Instagram (video  link)

Etsy (for video watching scroll down till ‘About Paula Kuitenbrouwer’

www.mindfuldrawing.com

mindfuldrawing@gmail.com

Auguste Rodin & Camille Claudel at Three Inches Challenge

Participating in a creative challenge is about exploring new drawing skills. A challenge needs to be a challenge, doesn’t it? I found Three Inches, at #mindfulartstudio of Amy Maricle, which is about working on 3 square inches. I decided to do a study of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel’s artwork. The insight that I gained confirms that I am not fascinated enough by human anatomy, despite hugely admiring Rodin and Claudel’s work. Nevertheless, I liked the challenge as a welcome break from my current obsession with antique drawings of beautiful classical buildings and romantic landscapes.

Thank you & till next posting,

Paula

Three Inches Challenge on Instagram at #incheschallenge2019.

at Etsy  & Instagram

Prehistoric Women Figurines

To deepen my understanding of female prehistoric figurines, I have set out to draw a few of them. Clockwise starting with tge middle-lower sitting woman, you find Courbet Venus, carved in a seated position, about 14.900 years old. Followed by the Venus of Polichinelle, carved in green steatite, 27.000 years old, found at Grimaldi. The strictly stylised engraved Lalinde Venus (there are more than one) found in Gönnersdorf in Germany, in Abri Murat and Gare de Couze in France, Pekárna in the Czech Republic, and Wilczyce in Poland. Stone Age. Further clockwise; Venus figures from Wilczyce, followed by another Gönnersdorf figurine. Then, Petersfels Venus that is made of jet, circa 15. 000 BP- 2.000 BP. Another Gönnersdorf engraving and last, Venus from Nebra, 15.000 years old, animal bone.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? You can’t possible blame prehistoric peoples for a lack of body diversity. But why the concentration on bellies and buttons, and why are heads and feet missing? Most look either emaciated, nursing or pregnant. Are some suffering from chronic diseases? Did it matter how a female looked like, or was the first piece of bone or stone vaguely resembling and therefore symbolising a (perhaps departed) woman okay for whatever ritual? Some look crudely abstract, others are enchantingly elegant, as if they are the first sketched outlines of ballerinas in action. I have chosen an ochre background as this pigment was hugely important to prehistoric peoples.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

at Etsy

At @mindfuldrawing on Instagram

Commissions welcome: contact me at mindfuldrawing@gmailc.om

York Minster Cathedral Drawing

b8fad007-ef2a-4ba9-9879-47168204b4ddThis is a drawing that I made while staying in an apartment opposite of York Minster (Cathedral). I enjoyed studying all York Minster’s wonderful, elegant, and whimsical details with and without binoculars.

I was especially charmed by some stonework that wasn’t symmetrical and I thus set out to capture it by standing in front of the window, drawing without a ruler. Later I used a ruler but only a little to keep the spontaneity of this elegant drawing. I apologise for the darker photos as I planned to place the drawing so that the façade of York Minster is visible in the background, thus photographing against natural light. The drawing is done on white (slightly off white) high quality paper and the drawing is light, elegant, and softly rendered. For ornithologists, boy did we enjoy the peregrine falcon family! Two parents and four juveniles exercising flying around the north east tower delighted us. For these birds, York Minster is a perfect natural rock formation surrounded by food (street pigeons).

This drawing is a special gift as there is only one and there are no copies available.

Artist info: Derwent graphite, fixative Winsor & Newton. Frame it with a mount and you have a lovely ‘Memory of a Minster’, or ‘Detail of a Cathedral’. (I know a Minster and Cathedral aren’t the same, yet many use both terms).

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

at Etsy

This drawing at Etsy

Cernunnos Inspired Stag in Ancient Worlds

Cernunnos small cards.jpg
The oldest (Celtic) god is Cernunnos, depicted with the antlers of a stag, seated cross-legged, associated with animals, and holding or wearing a torc (is a large rigid or stiff neck ring in metal, made either as a single piece or from strands twisted together).
Not much is known about Cernunnos but interpretations identify him as a beneficent god of nature, life, or fertility. I find it interesting that Cernunnos is half man, half stag. We clearly like to relate ourselves to such a magnificent animal. It looks well built yet elegant, noble and humble, strong but vulnerable.
I remember driving on Island of Mull and being redirected due to roadworks. As we continued our journey on small roads, all the sudden a huge stag stood in front of us. My husband stopped the car and for a moment we looked in awe to this mighty animal. It looked at us and we looked at him with instant respect, so close and intense was the encounter, that we can still recall the moment, decades later.  It will linger in our memory probably forever.

It is therefore that I have drawn stags and deer often. The challenge is always to capture the strength and elegance. Recently, I drew a full stag but I was disappointed because it didn’t stand out. It had not the mightiness that I was looking for. I then applied the ‘Celtic’ method of looking which lines and shadows were essential and which I should leave out. Say 90% of my initial lines were erased and as a result I not only ended up with a more powerful stag, the space that became available allowed me to work on applying beautiful lines and figures (see how the eyes of the stag are also birds). Thus, the stag is complied of many seemingly loose elements, connecting and giving it form.

Ancient Stones
Ancient Stone Graves Copyright Paula Kuitenbrouwer

I placed it in an ancient Upperworld, Middle world, and Underworld. The Upperworld shows the sun and the moon and the antlers of the stag shapeshift into birds that fly away, symbolizing a shamanistic journey to the Upperworld. The Middle world is shown as tree branches and tree trunks. The Underworld can be entered by visiting an ancient burial site, or being close to dolmens, as is the belief of ancient peoples. I knitted all worlds together by using patterned borders.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

At Etsy

Artist Info:  I used Derwent Graphite H7 and H3 only, on Winsor & Newton cold press paper. Using only Derwent H pencils gives a drawing very soft tones. Personally, I favour this, but others might judge that it needs more enforcement of darker areas. A few small prints of my drawing show a more enhanced or ‘harder’ version. There are many ‘Celtic’ pattern vectors freely available but I decided to design my own irregular patterns.

Ma, a Japanese aesthetic principle, in my three bird drawings

I’d like to show three paintings in which I have incorporated Ma, a Japanese aesthetic principle. Ma is described as ‘an interval in time and/or space’, thus referring to empty spaces, vagueness or abstraction. Empty spaces, in which nothing seems to happen, are full of possibilities. How do my three birds deal with Ma in their portraits?

Ekster by Paula Kuitenbrouwer

For my portrait of Magpie, Korea’s national bird, I added orange colour to compensate for a magpie’s black and white plumage. To stay close to her Korean habitat, I decided to position Magpie on a colourful and fruit-bearing persimmon branch, heavily laden with pumpkin-shaped kaki. Magpie is content with her portrait, and so am I.

Crow Kraai by Paula Kuitenbrouwer

Setting up a composition for a portrait of Carrion Crow was a little harder. Negotiations with this proud and cheeky bird were tough. I talked him into sitting on a mountain ash branch, but initially he didn’t agree with my decision of pushing him a little to the rear.

‘You are an indigo blue-ivory black bird’, I explained by pointing out that humans don’t like black things. I explained that I could trick humans in loving his plumage by adding the rich palette of colours of an autumn Mountain Ash.

‘This branch has fresh green, bright orange and deep red, and will charm viewers in loving your monotonous black feathers. And if I use a diagonal composition, I can guide the viewer along the branch, climbing up from deep red, through the bright orange to sap green. After such a colourful journey, people don’t mind a bit of solid black. But to do that, I told Carrion Crow, I have to push you a little to one side, but that is okay. Reluctantly, Carrion Crow agreed.

Sparrowhawk by Paula Kuitenbrouwer

My sparrow-hawk demanded to sit high and mighty on the top branch of a proud pine tree. The world of humans doesn’t interest him. He soars above it, looking down on our wars over oil, mass migration and our overheated, overpopulated world.

Sparrow-hawk knows he has this intricately textured and awesome coat of feathers, which makes fashion designers drool. Not much is needed next to such an eye-catching bird; two almost evenly-coloured pine cones complete the portrait. Sparrowhawk sat down just long enough for me to make a portrait, and, without so much as a ‘thank-you’, flew off to his own world, soaring high above ours.

Back to Ma.. In all three bird portraits you’ll notice considerable emptiness. My birds seem to look into this emptiness. What do they see? A suitable partner? Prey? Are they guarding their hidden nests? Are they exploring new horizons?

Ma is for you to fill in with your imagination, with your story-telling, your ornithological knowledge or poetry. But Ma can also be left open. We don’t need to fill in empty spaces with projections, trauma, words or sounds. Ma offers a thinking pause or escape from our train of thoughts.

Magpie, Carrion Crow and Sparrow-hawk understand Ma naturally. We are enchanted when we see a bird resting on a tree branch and we long to be like them: resting in Ma, accepting the here and now.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

@mindfuldrawing on Instagram

At Etsy.

Commissions for other themed Ma drawings are open.

Commissions your Kumamoto inspired Hanging Scroll with your family (symbolizes by flowers, patterns and animals).

I invite you to have a look at my portfolio on Etsy and Instagram. You might like to watch the videos of me drawing in Etsy and Instagram too.

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The Soul: Painting the Unpaintable

The Soul: Painting the Unpaintable

On an altarpiece owned by the Catharijneconvent Museum in the Netherlands, we see Mary and Gabriel; an Annunciation, of course. But the Annunciation is shown in so many paintings that it requires us to make an extra effort to see how remarkable this painting is.

Altarpiece Circa 1400

Let us talk you through it. This is a Flemish altarpiece dating from the late Middle Ages. The painting is about an episode in the Bible, yet it has subtle emotions. If it had been a Renaissance piece, the emotions would be expressed in full; Mary’s body wouldn’t be so poorly executed. The late Medieval characteristic of this painting is that it is richly decorated. It has sumptuous features, such as Gabriel’s clothing, the floor tiles and wallpaper. Mary and Gabriel blend in almost too much, especially Mary with her plain clothing against the heavily decorated background.

Then there is another lovely feature you shouldn’t miss. Gabriel, Mary and the two angels look alike. The most obvious explanation would be that the painter used his or her family as models: his sister or mother as Mary, his brother as Gabriel and his cousins as angels. Another explanation is more theological and much deeper: Mary, the angels and Gabriel were deliberately made to look alike, pale and delicate countenances surrounded by ginger hair, because the painter wanted to stress that Mary, Gabriel and the angels all are very close to God: that they resemble each other, thus also resembling God.

This is a plausible explanation, because the painter has given the theology of the story much thought. Although you might think that this painting was a show of architectonic and texture-drawing skills there is something many will miss while observing this altarpiece.

The painter was philosophical about how to paint God, incarnation or the soul before birth. Have a look at the golden beam of light that descends from the position between the two angels. The fact that the beam comes from above and is positioned between the angels, shows it is a holy sign. At the end of the beam we see the white dove, representing the Holy Spirit. The dove looks like an ocean-diving pelican, aiming to catch a big fish. Here we should remember that, for medieval Europe, the pelican, renowned for its love of its young, symbolised Christ himself. Mary is in a blissful meditative stage of prayer, open to the message of Gabriel when the dove of the Holy Spirit descends on her.

Baby Jesus

Nothing new, you might think, but notice the tiny figure that follows after the white dove has entered Mary’s mind. There is a small figure, a small, naked boy: Jesus, diving into Mary as the Holy Spirit does, which shows that Mary is soon to be pregnant with a holy child. Mary’s highest point, while reading her book, is her head: Jesus entering her head instead of her chest or lap shows that Jesus comes from ‘above’. With Joseph nowhere to be seen, the painting focusses on the spiritual aspect of a soul descending into a woman.

From this 15th century religious painting, let’s now move on to The Burial of Count Orgaz by El Greco, painted in 1568.

El Greco

The painting shows the miracle that is said to have happened during the burial of Count Orgaz: two saints descend from heaven to place the body of Count Orgaz in his tomb. While the painting shows Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine in full glory, tenderly putting Count Orgaz in his resting place in the lower part of the painting, halfway across the canvas an angel carries the soul of the count to Christ, who is positioned high up in the painting, gesturing by his open arms a welcoming sign. Between the earthy world in which Count Orgaz is laid to rest, and the heavenly world, hangs a whitish translucent veil. Its folds show there are angels hiding in it and, due to its uneven distribution, it creates numerous spaces or ‘heavens’. Dante wrote about many hells; this painting hints at many heavens. Between Mary and St. John the Baptist is a very narrow opening to which the angel with curly hair carefully pushes the soul of Count Orgaz.

Angel carrying soul

El Greco makes this soul-carrying angel a midwife in reverse, holding the soul of Count Orgaz with its vague, baby-like features, while it makes its ascent through the opening. Mary, in heaven, has one hand ready to support Count Orgaz’s soul, while St. John de Baptist is already communicating the arrival to Jesus.

We now have seen two paintings in which the soul is shown as a child’s physique. Why have the painters done that? Aren’t there full-grown, adult souls? The arriving soul and the departing soul are shown as a young child because a child is a symbol of innocence because it is without (sinful and full-grown) flesh, without actions it has performed as a responsible adult. When we see a beautiful baby or young child, we say; ‘what an angel’ and we may say that again of a shrunken, wise and kind grandparent. Obviously, to be an earthly angel one has to be either a new arrival from heaven or an almost-departing soul. One has to have that ethereal quality, with little flesh on the bone and an excess of lovingness and delicacy.

The soul in modern paintings is often the spiritual doppelganger of a person. The soul has the same size and form as the person from whom it departs. Paintings of outside body experiences show a shadowy twin figure hovering over a sleeping person. There is nothing exciting about this way of depicting of a soul. These modern souls are cheap replicas. They hold no philosophy, no symbolism or imagination. How different is the Flemish altarpiece of the Annunciation, or El Greco with a burial and an ascent to heaven in one painting, showing not only a dense social scene with many of Toledo’s notables, but also this curious soul, demonstrating theology, philosophy and creative imagination.

To paint a soul challenges a painter to think about what a soul is. It is the psyche of the Greek philosophers: pure consciousness? How would you paint pure consciousness? Is it the thymos, a person’s vitality, spirit or energy? How to express vitality with the help of paint and a brush? It certainly isn’t a person’s eidolon, the empty shadow that goes down to Hades, bereft of all vitality and awareness. The eidolon is the soul minus what makes us human. And what we see in these two paintings – the soul about to enter into life in the Flemish altarpiece and the departing soul of El Greco – are clearly human souls. In fact, what we see is something extraordinary: at attempt to paint the unpaintable.

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Gerwyn Moseley & Paula Kuitenbrouwer