Ducks have an elongated and broad body. Their round shape varies and their bills are broad and perfect for filtering salt and food. Ducks have strong and scaled legs. Their wings are short and muscular for carrying their heavy body. Ducks use their webbed feet not for swimming alone but also, like aeroplane flaps, for flying. A clever circulatory system keeps ducks warm in icy cold water.
Under water ducks can swim 300 feet and they can dive down 100 feet. They can fly very long distances, up to 30-70 miles an hour, depending on the wind. That is as fast as your car. Ducks spend most of their time in the water.
Clumsy on land, yes, but ducks deserve respect. If all above facts fail to impress, perhaps knowing their sleep with half their brains awake, like dolphins, will change your perspective on ducks?
Keen to learn more? Ducks can become 10-20 years of age and they see colour. Do you think their beautiful plumage is for attracting a female only or is it perhaps also an attempt to impress humans? Are not ducks… simply dazzling and delightful?
What are your thoughts when you read or hear the words ‘Family Portrait’? A painting in your grandparent’s house? Or a sepia vintage photo? Are you thinking of a window sill of your local photographer showing a family looking their best?
DEFINING A FAMILY PORTRAIT
Most of us think of a visit to a photographer when they are asked about a family portrait. But equally many of us never get that done because of the logistics of having all family members at the same moment looking their best and being in front of one camera. Many portraits therefore remain a dream. There is not so much you can do about that other than perhaps reformulating what a family portrait is.
What happens when we change the definition of a family portrait? What happens if we take away the physical absence of family members and replace members with animals or flowers carrying a symbolic meaning? I did this because during the pandemic lockdown of 2021, I wished for a family portrait. Going through a pandemic is not every day business, it is a anxious time that we will remember for decades to come. But instead of visiting a photographer (which was closed due to the lockdown anyway), I set out to draw our family portrait.
I chose to paint a Kumamoto Japanese inspired hanging scroll as a way to organize all the symbols that I would use. These Kumamoto hanging scrolls have special designed border areas in which I would add symbolic messages. I chose a Japanese wave pattern for the Tenchi section to show the pandemic because was not the pandemic throwing wave after wave of scary news to us? And wasn’t the pandemic showing us wave after wave gratitude that we were healthy, safe and strong? For the Chumawashi border, I chose flowers. With this I wanted to emphasise that the pandemic lasted several seasons. That despite all scary news, there were many blessed moments too. And for the Tenchi border, I used butterflies. Butterflies symbolise hope and hope is a precious emotion during a pandemic.
What kind of symbolism do I use? Animals offer symbolism. For instance, Koi carp stand for prosperity; mandarin ducks for love and loyalty. Butterflies symbolise hope. Surnames often offer a reference or a clue. In the borders and in the main painting animals and vegetation will play this symbolic role.
To portrait our family, I shape-shifted my family in a family of Koi carp. Koi fish symbolise prosperity. If there was one thing during the pandemic that we were acutely aware of, it was that we had each other’s love and that we were able to continue working and studying.
COMMISSIONING YOUR PORTRAIT
Should you like to have a painting of a hanging scroll that symbolises your family or your life, I can work with you. We need to discuss symbols, colours and patterns but then you will have your (family) life’s narrative hanging on your wall. Nobody will know its symbolism; visitors will see a beautiful, highly detailed hanging scroll drawing/painting. You will have a choice to tell or not disclose all hidden symbolism in your hanging scroll. Put in front of it an Ikebana flower arrangement and one corner in your home will look exquisite.
Here is my family portrait. I worked on it during the winter 2021. There were many grey days which made the lockdown harder but there were also beautiful snowy days with clear blue skies that made me so happy looking outside. My husband and daughter wondered who was who in this portrait. I considered giving them the answers but decided to leave the questions open. Don’t we all take centre stage in turns? Do we not all play a big role and the next day a small role? Life is like that and it should be like that to create harmony.
The Floating World (ukiyo) was an expression of the new economy and social ambitions of the common townspeople of the Edo period (1615-1868). It was, specifically, a world of play and entertainment in Japan’s three main cities (Edo [now called Tokyo], Osaka, and Kyoto).
During our series of lock-downs, de-cluttering has become a beneficial home bound activity. I found an old diary that I had forgotten about. Being in full de-cluttering mode, I was about to throw it away. But before I knew, I sat down reading a few entries. Surprisingly, I enjoyed reading my own musings. That is interesting because when I was young I read A.S. Byatt’s warning against diary whining which instilled a fear to keep daily notes. But encouraged by my old diary entries, I decided to start a lockdown diary assuming that years from now I -again- would find it interesting to read back about how we lived during this unusual time.
A Home Bound Life
I bought a New Romantic 1980s Paperblanks. But soon after, I felt again apprehensive to keep a diary, afraid that my writing would be irrelevant, a waste of time. But then, how can one expect grand and compelling entries when one is living a lockdown life? I opposed the self-sabotaging thoughts by remembering Etty Hillesum’s diary. I also remembered Brother Lawrence, a monk in the 1600s, who wrote on mindfulness whilst being confined to a monastery. (Not that I compare myself to Hillesum or Lawrence). I concluded that a diary does not have to report an epic and sweeping life. A home bound life amidst a clear and present danger that shakes our society, like the 2020/21 pandemic, is equally of value.
An old diary entry that I found at the time we were travelling abroad: ‘Exotic lands offer challenges and strangeness, a feeling of anxiety and excitement. Against the background of a new landscape we project ourselves as vulnerable, which results in a sense of awe and wonder. We dwell in new landscapes testing ourselves and feel an urge to settle and domesticate the land in order to feel free of anxiety, to feel safe. When we explore new lands, we feel so vulnerable and lonely that we search for gods or goddesses in pools, on the tops of mountains, in caves, near old trees, like prehistoric peoples did. We do all this to feel less naked, less exposed, more at home. We create sanctuaries but the land itself and all that comes with it was sacred before we arrived. We set up altars, shrines, and hang flags in trees. We feel a need for divine or ancestral support when we feel exposed to new horizons’.
Nothing Grand or Epic
Now I write an entry almost every day and instead of writing epic and sweeping reports of meeting remarkable people, being chased by Ceberus, surviving Odysseus’ ship-wrecking storms, or discovering a new Lascaux, I report progress on drawings, on the joy of reading, and the small pleasures and setbacks of a lockdown life.
Should you have doubts whether or not to record your lockdown or pandemic life, please take my advice and do it because it is fun. Like me, you might find pleasure it in and it might be of use as a primary source for further family members who wonder what the Covid-19 pandemic felt like ‘back then’.
In 2012, I set up a website named ‘Mindfuldrawing’ and over time I have added and deleted many posts. Several times I came close to deleting everything out of frustration with stolen artwork, difficult updating processes, and customizing challenges. Years later I can say ‘good’ that I took away posts that weren’t visited often enough to be of significance. What stayed were valuable articles that are frequently visited from all over the world. My website matured to something that goes beyond an artist portfolio; there are written pieces on art appreciation, essays, art musings, freehand and commissioned artwork.
Sometimes I was allowed to publish privately commissioned book-plates of which some are situated in past times, Medieval times, or the Jugendstil period. Other times it was requested to keep commissions private.
Lastly, there are many Mandarin duck drawings and aquarelles, because people, like me, love these sweet and colourful ducks. It is said that mandarin ducks attract love and loyalty. Since my return to the Netherlands in 2018, I discovered two couples in nearby parks and estates. Therefore, I can confirm that mandarin ducks do attract …well, lovely mandarin ducks.
I like to invite you to my website. It isn’t a sleek, frequently updated website. Instead it is a calm and thoughtful little place of the Internet like one of those tiny, intimate window seats inside an old library where you can snuggle up for a few hours of mindful reading and viewing art.
I have drawn in an illustrative way a Muskox and added prehistoric spirals to its thick coat. The spirals symbolize ‘time’ and the passing of time as time most likely was experienced more circular than linear in ancient times.
The year of the Ox starts from February 12th, 2021 (Chinese lunar New Year Day) and lasts until January 30th, 2022. Because it will be a Metal Ox year, I have assembled a golden postcard. If we associate one characteristic to an ox it is surely its strength. May 2021 offer you strength to catch up with all you planned for 2020 but fell through due to the pandemic. May 2021 offer strength to create a ‘new normal’ that is both enjoyable for you and promising for future generations. The 2020 pandemic has showed us how we have overstepped in liberalism, hedonism and consumerism. Lock-down made us feel like we were on a forced spiritual retreat. The year 2021 requires strength and determination to make our world a better place.
I have only a few of these art cards at Etsy. They are heavy cards. I offer to address them to your family or friends, thus saving time which is important now that there are many worldwide, postal delays. I suggest the following text: ‘Happy Lunar New Year of the Ox’ followed by your name.
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?’
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.
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)
After returning to my home country, I find myself looking back at living abroad as a diplomatic spouse. By writing fictional stories, I play with the idea how different my diplomatic memories could have been.
Prehistoric Diplomatic Dinner Party
Whilst enjoying tea in our local tearoom, Suzanne asked me how the dinner party last Saturday had been.
‘It was lovely’, I smiled and my mischievous giggle didn’t escape her. A gentle smile appeared; ‘Tell me!’
The barista brought us coffee and nut cakes.
‘Well, the party was very well organized and the Finish Embassy is just so lovely. You know that, don’t you?’ Suzanne nodded and reminded me that she had a National Day reception there last year, so there was no need for me to describe the dining room.
‘I sat between two quiet people. I tried to make conversation, you know; the usual polite opening questions. On my left sat Mr. Park from South-Korea. This was his last party before moving to Genève. He gave the most polite answers possible which hindered my attempts to engage him in conversation. You know these parties, don’t you? Everything is utterly perfect but there is no esprit’. Of course, Suzanne knew. She had been, like me, a diplomatic spouse for ages. ‘And on my right side, I had a Latin-American lady of about 60-65. Initially, she was very withdrawn and reluctant to tell about herself. I forgot to find out to whom she was partnered.’ Suzanne encouraged me to get to the point.
‘It seemed like ages before the second serving arrived. I felt so desperate for some enthusiasm. I felt my mood change and..’
‘Yes, yes… so what did you do?’ Suzanne asked impatiently knowing that not much was possible because I was well educated, well prepared, well balanced…basically a lot of ‘well’s’, and thus caught in a web of well behaving-ness.
‘My mind wandered to my prehistory course, you know; my all time favourite subject, but I could not just blurt out something Neolithic and expect them to be interested. And yet, that was exactly what I longed for to do. Just for once! So, ……I made up a recent archaeological discovery. Yes, I just did that by drawing inspiration from the prehistoric excavation in France of the Lady of Vix, Germany’s Hochdorf Chieftan’s grave, combined with the famous British Amesbury Archer, all real graves but no one knows about these anyway?’
‘I have never heard of these famous individuals. Are you telling me you just made up a whole story?’ Suzanne asked with a mixture of disbelief and amusement.
‘Yes! By the time the second serving was finished, I had enthusiastically explained highly significant artifacts, linguistic evidence supporting archaeology, carbon dating accuracy, rituals, and battles. I impressed my listeners with throwing in lots of names, locations, Celtic styles, Viking trade routes, even names of highly respected archaeologists like Barry Cunliffe. He is real, by the way. I talked myself through dessert. If no-one inspires you, you basically have to inspire yourself!’
‘So true’, Suzanne said. I could tell she was eager to hear more.
‘Mr. Park, the Asian man, politely endured my monologue but the Latin American lady became livelier even eager to learn more about prehistoric battle victims. The more I went into this imaginary world, any inhibition to stick to scientific evidence left me. I even became theatrical and emotional as I described Iron Age superstition and reenacted some funerary rituals focusing on the cause of death of famous shamans.
‘They had not the foggiest idea you were …uhm…. ‘storytelling’, shall I call it?’ I loved Suzanne for her unwavering diplomatic word choice.
‘That’s right. Instead, I found the Latin-American lady asking me stimulating questions, many reflecting on the cause of death of Iron Age shamans. I sat through a jolly good dinner after all, in the company of a lovely, enduring audience.’ We laughed like young girls about my silliness and got ready to leave the tearoom.
We were well on our way to the parking garage when Suzanne inquired whether I had first checked the background of my dinner companions. Of course, I had. The Asian man was a publisher; the Latin American woman was a doctor.
‘Imagine, telling your fantastic story to an archaeologist and finding yourself debunked!’ Suzanne giggled with the prospect of my making an unforgettable blunder.
‘How clever do you think I am?’, I boasted.
Before we stepped into our cars, Suzanne asked whether I would come over a bit earlier the next day to help lay the coffee table for her guests.
‘I particularly look forward to meeting Natalia again’, Suzanne said.
‘Why?’, I inquired absent-mindedly, getting into my car.
‘I met her a few days ago at that Swedish Santa Lucia reception -which you sadly missed- and she told me she felt lonely. She is older, you see. This is their last posting abroad. Apparently, she feels somewhat inhibited to tell about her job that she held till a few years ago. She is the second partner of the Peruvian ambassador and her job is often regarded as somewhat gruesome’.
‘Suzanne, could she be the woman who sat next to me last night?’, I asked disbelieving.
‘Well, she has very straight, thick black hair, a bob’, Suzanne mentioned. I started to feel uncomfortable; I had counted on never seeing my audience again!
‘Could she be the Latin-American doctor? No, it can’t be, that would be too coincidental. But darn-it, she had a bob too’, I said, placing my handbag on the car’s passenger seat.
‘I must have Natalia’s name card…, Suzanne said; ‘It is a bit of a mouthful but wait..’. Suzanne grabbed in her pocket and lifted out some name cards. After checking a few, she said; ’Here it is. She told me…. till recently she was internationally renowned … she is…here it says; a paleo-pathologist’. I gasped. Suzanne saw all my colours disappearing from my face.
The next day, Natalia cancelled tea at Suzanne’s house and I felt enormously relieved. But, inevitable as it was, I met the formerly renowned doctor in the study of diseases of ancient man a month later at the Presidential New Year’s reception. She smiled at me as we shook hands.
‘I had hoped you would not remember me’, I said with a growing blush of shame on my cheeks.
‘I never forget faces. See, I remember somebody’s skull’s features’, she replied. And just when I was about to make a prolonged excuse, she took me by the arm.
‘Stop apologizing. You were wrong by about 5000 years on the timeline regarding a few burials, but otherwise you warmed my paleo-pathologist’s heart’.
‘You are very forgiving’, I said softly. ‘When I learned that I had been blabbing to a professional, I felt an Iron Age axe landing on my head’. Natalia smiled very kindly: ‘I was just pleasantly waiting for you to drown in a misty, prehistoric peat-land full factual and fictional sedges and shrubs.
‘To become a famous bog body on display in a national Museum of Ethnology?’, I asked. We both laughed. For as long as we were together en poste we would never skip a chance to meet at receptions and have a passionate, prehistoric chit-chat.
There is a tender beauty and quality in the ritual a shaman visiting Nuliajuk (also known by the name ‘Sedna’) performs when this fierce goddess is angry. Nuliajuk is the sea-deity on which Netsilik Inuit depend for food and living. When hunters cannot find food, Netsilik Inuit believe that their food is tangled up in Nuliajuk’s hair. A shaman will have to travel to the bottom of the icy cold sea where he or she will find the goddess upset with anger. The animals that have once been her fingers before they morphed into sea mammals are itching! They urgently need to be freed from her long hair.
When the sea is mildly wild, Nuliajuk grows irritated. Her hair becomes tangled up with sea creatures. If only Nuliajuk could de-tangle her hair all would be well again. But she cannot because her father chopped off her fingers. Her fingers dropped next to her to the bottom of the sea where they grew into sea animals. The story of why her fingers got chopped up by her desperate father is another one, which a reader might like to research. For here, the focus lies on a tender and caring task an Inuit shaman has to perform in order to help calming down a frustrated sea goddess.
Nuliajuk has grown so upset with itching and annoying animals, she tries wildly to release them by running her fingers through her hair. To no avail, Nuliajuk can only wildly shake her arms and head, stirring up high waves and as a result the sea becomes wilder and wilder. Hunters cannot find food or bring something edible home and even the sled dogs grow hungry. Animals cannot be hunted, hides cannot get preserved, and the health of the people is declining. It feels like spiralling down: Nuliajuk is so angry, one cannot hunt. And because the wild waves tangle up Nuliajuk’s hair even more, she grows increasingly vexed. Nuliajuk’s powers are thus either life giving when she is calm. But when she is not, people face starvation.
Here a shaman needs to step in. He or she needs to tidy up Nuliajuk’s hair, set free animals after which Inuit are able to regain their hunt. All the shaman needs to do is reach Nuliajuk in a spiritual realm and take care of her hair. Often people relax when their hair is tenderly brushed and for Nuliajuk it is no different. This is the shaman’s task; calming down Nuliajuk, freeing sea mammals, and restoring an equilibrium that is both beneficial for the sea-goddess and for her people.
Can we see Nuliajuk’s mesmerizing hair? Yes, by looking in an ocean or sea. When you sit on a boat and you lean over, look under the surface and you will see movements. These undercurrents are Nuliajuk’s long strands of hair. Isn’t that beautiful? When we are confronted with plastic pollution (tangled up in Nuliajuk’s hair), we feel alarmed which is a good thing because – like in Nuliajuk’s tale -, plastic pollution kills sea animals; discarded fishing nets traps fish and sea mammals like Nuliajuk’s hair.
What does the Inuit shaman look like? Well, just like any other Inuit except that he or she might dress up in a special coat. In 2015, the fashion label KTZ copied a unique shamanic Canadian Arctic garment that dated back to the early 1900s. According to Smithsonian researcher Sima Sahar Zerehi this garment was the ‘most unique garment known to have been created in the Canadian Arctic’. The design was used without the consent of the shaman’s descendants in Nunavut and thus it was pulled from stores. KTZ apologized to the family. But by then it had sparked interest in the origins of the parka and the meaning behind its symbolic designs. Do the large hands on the chest of the garment represent the hands of the shaman that help Nuliajuk with de-tangling her hair, a vital act to restore her mood?
Nuliajuk is a timeless goddess but by now we have trade Nuliajuk’s mood for the Beaufort scale, an empirical measure that relates wind speed to observed sea conditions. When sea animals get trapped in fishing nets, we need people interfering, like shamans calming Nuliajuk. When sea-weeds, which remarkably look like Nuliajuk’s hair, disappear, we find food resources depleting. Taking care of the Great Barrier Reef of Australia by replenishing its coral feels like scientists stepping in for shamans taking care of Nuliajuk’s world.
No matter how we tell a story about our seas and oceans, mythologically or environmentally, we know that the sea takes care of us when we take care of her.
When ancient people of Island of Man prayed to their Celtic sea god, Manannán (or Manann) to shroud their island in thick mists to protect it from marauding Vikings, people had to pray. Gods like communicating with men, they like offerings and prayers. According to mythological stories they also like to be properly thanked. In the story of Nuliajuk one sees this element of reciprocity: she takes care of her peoples, they need to help her because of her missing ability to run her fingers through her hair and thus keep it tidy. This reciprocity can be extended to all nature gods, in fact to Nature herself. We have very few shamans left but, wisely, our children are educated on environmental issues at school. Beach cleaning school trips raise lasting awareness of pollution (and contributes to ‘keeping Nuliajuk’s hair well kept).
This illustration is for sale. It could be used as a book cover or a book illustration. Or a lesson plan illustration. Contact me should you like to use it. The link is here. Its price is negotiable in relation to its copyright.
How can we educate our children on Nuliajuk? When trying to buy a book on this goddess, I find only one title: ‘Nuliajuk’ by the explorer Knud Rasmussen, published in 2017 for Grade 3 readers. This is great for young children for learning about the interaction between nature and man by anthropomorphizing nature forces. When these children become high school students, they will remember their mythological education and see stories morphing into environmental science. They might even recognize the small Nuliajuk statute in Leiden’s National Museum of Ethnology (Netherlands). Her small, soapstone statute carries a beautiful historical, environmental, and mythological tale of nature’s power over peoples and over healing reciprocity.
Some lesson ideas are:
Explain the role of the shaman and compare him/her to priests, doctors and environmental activists. Look up the four animals that are trapped in Nuliajuk’s hair. Explain why they are mammals and not fish. Explain why Nuliajuk has become an environmental goddess who needs our help; explain on a larger scale taking care of our environment. Explain why we need seas and oceans for food and future food (seaweeds and algae). Compare Nuliajuk’s hair with discarded fishing nets. Explain why we need nature and why nature needs our care.
One day I was admiring our local herbal garden and found myself in William Morris’ Trellis wallpaper design. To celebrate this moment of seeing artwork by the most famous Arts and Crafts Movement artist being alive right in front of me, I set out making a large watercolour painting. I believe the Arts and Crafts Movement and especially William Morris’ designs strengthened the human-nature connection.
This watercolour makes a lovely wink to past artisan times. Morris designed a simplified trellis with perfect squares, which I stayed true to. But instead of climbing roses and bluebirds, I have chosen passionflowers as host plants to a hummingbird and a butterfly. I have paid much attention to drawing an Arts and Crafts frame, in dark wood with embellishments.
Morris used different ground colours including blue, dark grey, taupe, and the off-white which I will do too. Blue symbolizing heavens, the ethereal part of life and dark, wood brown representing our earthly life. I have used some gold and iridescent paint so that light offers an enriching effect on this watercolour painting.
Size is 46 by 61 cm or 18 by 24 inches. Horizontally oriented. I always use Arches High Quality Art Paper, satin because of its soft satin feel and because, to me, it is simply the best. This artwork will need an off-white or softly coloured passe-partout (mount) and a frame. You will cherish this original artwork for years to come!
‘Trellis with lush Acanthus and Passionflowers, a Hummingbird and a Butterfly.’ (Passionflower is the host plant for hummingbirds and fritillary butterflies).
Should you like artwork that matches your William Morris wallpaper, consider commissioning me. I look forward to work with you.
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”.
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.
“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.
Colourful mandarin duck watercolour paintings have been added to my Etsy shop.
The large composition consisting of an Asian landscape, a lotus pond, a turtle pond, and mandarin ducks was lovely to make. I felt inspired to make it after visiting the Volkenkundig Museum in Leiden, where I enjoyed the Asian department. As always, I was charmed by how Asian artist harmoniously combine natural and abstract representations of their surroundings.
Ochre is a natural clay earth pigment which is a mixture of ferric oxide and varying amounts of clay and sand. It ranges in colour from yellow to deep orange or brown and I use it a lot in my studio. It goes by different names: Yellow Ochre, Gold Ochre, Brown Ochre, Naples Ochre, or Burnt ochre, to name a few. Ochre is an important find for archaeologists too. In prehistoric times this pigment had a variety of functions: as soap, paint, grave goods, and for embalming the dead. It may even have been sunblock 50+ for as long as it did not flake off.
Otjize is a mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment used by Himba people of Namibia to protect themselves from the harsh desert climate. And for prehistoric people ochre was perhaps what Clorox and make-up is to us now. People perhaps used it as body paint, ideal for hygienic purposes too due to water scarcity. When it flakes off it removes skin and dirt.
Prehistoric hand stencils have been made with red and yellow ochre. Did red hands symbolize the living and white the dead? I wrote a short essay on this on my website.
Yellow Pale Ochre is part of my favourite standard colour palette. It is a much-used pigment in whatever painting I make using water paints, gouache paints, or oils.
Ochre is many things. It has many colours, it has many functions. Archaeologists link it to our way of thinking. When prehistoric peoples started colour processing they were showing colour preferences. As one thing represents something else, we are in the business of symbolic thinking. Red for ‘blood’, yellow ochre for ‘sun’, brownish ochre for ‘earth’. We do not know because we can’t ask our long dead ancestors. But what we know for sure is that many colours of ochre were important to them.
Ochre is a constant companion in my studio because I work with paints all the time. And when I take a break from painting, I love to read books on prehistory. Interestingly, the more I use it and the more I learn about it, the more fascinating this pigment becomes.
At Etsy as Paula Kuitenbrouwer & at Instagram as mindfuldrawing
What better than receiving a request to draw a floral triptych of lush spring flowers during the Corona lockdown? After the monochromatic under layer, working on these large Arches sheets (41- 61 cm), adding many layers of colour, felt like wandering through a lush garden.
The contrary was true. We were home most of the time, our city turning into a ghost town with museums and botanical gardens keeping their doors locked. Going to the supermarket and making a daily walk through greener parts of our area was all we did. I bought new green plants and planted some extra flowers on our balcony. But my real garden was on my drawing station and it was full irises, tulips, and daffodils. Before giving the sheets a protective spray, I added bugs and bees.
Packing up an commission always makes me nervous. But it worked by using an XL artist tube and three protective folios. By the time I brought the artist tube to the post office, our lockdown was almost over. Only our botanical gardens keep their gates closed till the 1st of July. Although I long to visit them, I understand that they can do very well without us, humans. They might even have had a jolly good time!
I love drawing and painting mandarin ducks. I am always pleasantly surprised how sweet they look no matter how I change their position or background. They look lovely when bobbing on the Great Wave off Kanagawa or when they rest on a riverbank. My most favourite, however, is the graphite drawing of my mandarin ducks resting on a river bank in a forest area. The sun is setting and birds fly over in the background.
I love working with colours but making a 19-century style graphite drawing that is full texture, detail and depth is a wonderful thing to do.
Having said this, it always adds colour to my day when I can use my whole range of coloured pencils or Derwent watercolours to work on the drake’s outrageously colourful plumage. But take away all colours, like I did for the Albino mandarin ducks, you still find yourself in awe of probably the cutest water-bird.
Resting Mandarin Duck by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Mandarin Ducks in Lotus Pond by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Albino Mandarin Ducks art cards by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Marvellous Mandarin Ducks art card
Mandarin Ducks Bobbing on The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Follow the progress that I make drawing three lovely houses located at the Nieuwe Gracht, Utrecht. This large drawing demands much patience because these three pearls are full details. I will update this blogpost regularly. For videos on this project, visit my Instagram account @mindfuldrawing. Contact me for questions and commissions.
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 research. 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.
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 painting are re-used, altered and traces of early paintings are often visible in later versions, the compositional flaws could be caused by more than one artists working at this piece of rock art over a long period of time.
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, technically and anatomically. 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 beloved and charismatic shaman? ‘He had formidable eyesight like the eyes of an owl’. It is almost as if we hear somebody remembering him during his funeral. ‘He wore antlers of a stag and could hear with the ears of a wolf’. ‘He had such a kind face, like that of a deer’. ‘He had a well groomed beard as one of a bison’. ‘He could run like a horse, but despite his superior qualities, he was just a man’ (hence the human genitalia).
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. A community that thought high of him and went through huge efforts to make an intriguing portrait of him.
In my hometown of Utrecht, on two Rococo houses alongside the ‘Nieuwe Gracht’, stands Hercules holding the sky onto his shoulders. The ancient story goes that Hercules has taken up the firmament for Atlas allowing the old Titan a brief moment of respite to take up one of his labours.
I had to correct Hercules’ legs because all reference photos are taken from street level, and Hercules stands on top of a four story house, and it therefore the statute showed too short legs. I’ve elongated Hercules’ legs to create a level frontal view.
Hercules looks strong, but he is a demigod and demigods can do things we mortals can not. Yet, the maker of this statute, the Dutch sculptor Ton Mooy, has given Hercules a tormented expression.
I kept wondering why I like this Hercules. When I was about to draw his hair and face, I remembered. I had seen this kind of hair and facial expression before. Hercules has the same hair as Vercingetorix (see photo) and a similar tormented expression as the statute of the Dying Gaul (see photo), an Ancient Roman Hellenistic sculpture. There is beauty in showing that extraordinary strength and bravery often comes with pain.
Hercules Utrecht Statute by Ton Mooy, drawing by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Herculus in Utrecht City Centre, drawing by Paula Kuitenbrouwer, Statute by Ton Mooij.
Herculus/Aardkloot/Nieuwe Gracht Utrecht by Ton Mooy
Holly has a strong cultural resonance. We use it as a Christmas decoration since the Victorian times. In pagan times, it was customary to bring holly boughs in to decorate the house. Holly was a powerful fertility symbol and was supposed to protect a family against ill-fortunes. Holly planted near a home was regarded as a safe guard against poisoning. It also provided protection from lightening. During Yule, we bring holly in our homes to remind us that green foliage will return when the darker days grow shorter.
Every year I send so many Yule or Christmas cards and every year less are returning seasonal wishes. On the one hand I understand; sending cards costs time, energy, and paper. On the other hand, this tradition that dates back to Victorian times, reminds us that in the middle of the long North-European winter, when winter brought hardship, we would send each other well wishes. It was to let people know that you were thinking about them, that you were keeping a person in the light, that you would pray for his/her well-being, or that you wanted to give a sign of life and hoped to receive a sign of life in return. It is a lovely tradition that has many variations. There were messengers bridging long distances with a message of hope or well being, there were powerful musical instruments being able to be heard miles away that informed villagers miles away of a message depending on which melodies were used, there were postal doves, and now there is email. A dressed up card never loses its charm and although I am too scaling back my list, I hope this tradition will survive text-messages and email.
In 2017, I followed ‘Who were the Celts?’ at Oxford Department for Continuing Education. I enjoyed reading an essay on Iron Age mirrors. ‘Mirrors in the British Iron Age: Performance, Revelation and Power, by Melanie Giles and Jody Joy. It inspired me immensely.
Iron Age 50 BC – AD 50
Found in 1908 near Desborough
After reading about Iron Age mirrors, I set out to draw the Iron Age Desborough mirror. Through drawing I would gain more insights into its decorations and its function. Iron Age mirrors that were beautifully decorated and made of bronze and iron were found in graves of high status Iron Age women.
I like to say something about high status Iron Age women. One might think ‘high status’ refers to rich women or wives of rulers or kings. But although both accounts can be correct, high status refers in the Iron Age more to women being leaders or shamans themselves.
Working on the patterns of Desborough Iron Ago Mirror
Detail of Desborough Iron Age Mirror
The essay discusses how Iron Age metallurgy and how a whole community was involved in the making process. Also, it discusses social relations, grave goods, and the compass drawn motifs of repeated and distinctive forms arranged into intricate and flee flowing designs. Fascinating, to say in the least. The question begs why were mirrors used as grave goods? The easiest answer does not always work, one being that the Iron Age lady was buried with her belongings. Perhaps the mirrors were not possessions but (diplomatic) gifts. And why would a deceased lady take a mirror, she wouldn’t need it in her afterlife, or would she?
Imagine looking into this mirror. The effect of seeing your face in the reflective properties of the plate, disrupted or enhanced by its La Tene decorations would …yes, what would you see?
Giles and Joy describe how the decorations on the mirrors are not only used to deceive the eye, but also to reinforce the reflective qualities of the mirror plate. The anthropologist Alfred Gell points out that Iron Age mirrors could have expressed political power and legitimise associations with the supernatural. This is hard for us to understand but in order to understand what Gell states requires us to imagine a time in which you only saw your reflection in (restless or calm) water, in shiny objects, like copper, bronze, silver or gold. How special such mirrors would be! Imagine now that next to not frequently seeing your reflection, you were raised to notice all sorts of shapes in water, smoke, old trees, and rocks. We have a clear sense of what we see is real and what is imagination, but for ancient people perhaps seeing was just seeing, whether it was imagination or fact. If the under-upper and middle world aren’t having hard borders, perhaps seeing imaginative, hallucinative and factual weren’t compartmentalised either.
When I suffer a migraine aura, I see things that do not exist and things that I need to see are gone. I can be passed in the streets by somebody who is missing his head. Perhaps looking into an Iron Age mirror yields a similar effect as having a migraine aura because Iron Age mirrors have blanked out spaces and thus provide viewers with a disorienting and distorted image of themselves. Yet, an Iron Age mirror has not only missing parts (blanked out spaces, decorated with a basket woven texture) but carefully chosen synchronised but flow-like playful, witty, and mischievous botanical and animal patterns. What effect would looking into a shiny plate, with a deliberate disorienting pattern have? Here the essay explains more about the ‘technology of enchantment‘ and goes deeper into psychological war-fare though powerful visceral and visual effects. It informs the reader about the Fang People of Gabon who used hallucinogens before looking into mirrors, and states that these Iron Age mirrors were not real mirrors (not for checking hair or make-up). In fact, the mirrors played a role in rituals to release the soul to its afterlife.
During the time that I spent drawing this Iron age mirror, I tried many things. I tried to project my face behind the decorations, fusing my face and the decorations and then see all sorts of animals. Of course, this is a very poor attempt to understand its magic. But I have to do it with a large doses of imagination and hours of drawing as there is no way I would be able to hold the mirror up and have a look in it. And even if I could do that, there wouldn’t be a ritual that would be helpful performed by an Iron Age shaman who would be experienced in travelling between worlds. (Or brainwaves, or different stages of consciousness, whatever way you might define shamanistic journeying).
My concluding thoughts are that by looking into this mirror, in an Iron Age ritual ceremony, with an Iron Age cognitive mindset, maybe, as a dying lady of high status, I would find great comfort in seeing my old face being obscured with these splendid swirling decorations. I would be calm as I have seen, thanks for my migraines, often enough things that aren’t there and fail to notice things that are there. I would probably enter theta brainwaves the same way as after sitting down for a longer time in meditation or -more Iron Age style- looking into the smoky swirls of an open campfire. I might start seeing my face, combined with the swirly flowing embellishments turning into animal and ancestral spirits. One has to understand that the Iron Age was full of spirits, spirits we have carefully abandoned from our modern life. But just as they have been forgotten, it doesn’t mean these spirits aren’t there. I would most certainly find an ancestral spirit that would ‘present’ itself as so much of my own face would be blanked out, and only essential and familiar facial lines would still linger in the reflective image. Or perhaps, I would see a beautiful stag or other horned mammal, and experience it as my guiding spirit animal. Perhaps I would see the hybrid human-animal dressed-up shaman of the village giving me instructions to journey to the Other-world.
All in all, it would perhaps release my soul into an in-between world in which I would be able to project comfortably to what I would need to see. I would probably have been fasting during the last days of my life, I would be susceptible for my imaginative mind to dominate and thus the softly and dreamily reflecting mirror would get a transitional quality and function. Or perhaps I would look and whisper some wise words, like Tibetan shamans who look into mirrors to see the future and the past, wise words that would be helpful to my tribe. The Fang people of Gabon use mirrors to contact their ancestors. Do Iron Age mirrors have a similar function?
Obviously, many things become possible should such a highly valued mirror be available to a tribe. It is therefore that there many more than this Desborough mirror only. One by one these mirrors and their fascinating embellishments are showing us that Iron Age metallurgy and shamanism practises were interrelated and that highly decorated ‘magic’ Iron Age mirrors were much appreciated by Iron Age peoples.
P.S. During the hours that I was my drawing of the Desborough mirror, I travelled between worlds too. I had to descend from my creative, spiritual plane of manifesting ideas to the mundane world of running errands. As the trees were shedding their leaves, I noticed many decomposed leaves with open parts resembling mini Iron Age mirrors scattered on the street. If you can not enjoy looking into the Desborough Iron Age mirror at the British Museum, do not despair, mini versions are freely available every autumn.
Art cards are available at Etsy (and can be framed as small memories to this exquisite mirror):
I like to show you two different mandarin duck drawings. In traditional Asian culture, mandarin ducks are believed to be lifelong couples, unlike other species of ducks. Hence they are regarded as a symbol of love, affection, and fidelity.
The first drawing is titled Matchmaking in Heaven. It shows a mandarin duck couple in a lotus pond. It is a softly rendered watercolour drawing. The pond is calm, lotus flowers are growing and so is the bond between this duck and drake deepening. The duck and drake have just decided to take a swim. They will look for food, synchronized as they are. They are life long partners and, like swans, will stay together. Lotus flowers are symbols of purity, enlightenment, self-regeneration and rebirth. In Asia, mandarin ducks represent love and loyalty. Seeing bonding ducks, seeing how synchronised they are, makes people long for a deep belonging, a deep bond between lovers. Love renews itself every day; it grows, it deepens and sometimes we need to stand still and take time to say ‘I love you’ to our beloved ones. Because, although we know it, expressing this during a day that is full of obligations, commitments, and ambitions is a good thing. Combining the Lotus symbol with the Mandarin ducks, this couple stays together to grow old and wise together. They feel reborn in their deepening love every season.
The other mandarin duck couple drawing has a longer story. I was about to add a new couple to my portfolio when I noticed the Fibonacci Sequence in one of my old sketches. I immediately set out to make a circular composition, adding two ducks shaped as in the well-know Fibonacci fashion. And after having done that successfully, I couldn’t stop and added parts of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by the Japanese artist Hokusai next to the mandarin ducks.
Now I had four Fibonacci elements in one drawing, as I recognized the Fibonacci sequence in Hokusai’s wave too. This mandarin duck couple, deeply in love with each other, is bathing in wild waters. In fact, they are so deeply bonded, they have no idea where they individually begin or end. They have become one in emotion and routine. They are also one with the waters they live in.
The beautiful Hokusai wave, which could be interpreted as the pleasant and unpleasant high waves life throws at every couple, can’t separate them. They will stay together during their whole life; in high tide and low tide, in calm and difficult times, through day and night, till the end.
This circular composition is available at Etsy. The original drawing of the ducks in the lotus pond is available here. Should you not like Etsy and you need cards or a commission or this original drawing, contact me freely and without obligation by using the contact form.
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.
My ‘Gate to Heaven’, a lovely gate is located not too far away from my home, at Bruntenhof, Museumkwartier in Utrecht.
In real, there is no flower vase, just pavement in front of this gate. I received some feedback, stating: ‘There is a great difference between a photo of this gate and your drawing. A photo shows beautiful stonework but you have drawn something dreamy and poetic. The gate has become a portal to another world. You can walk through it and find yourself in a Medieval landscape with knights and dryads‘. I think the feedback itself is rather poetical, don’t you think? Such sensitive feedback stimulates me to make even more progress.
This gate can be found at Bruntenhof, Museumkwartier in Utrecht, in the centre of the Netherlands. It dates back to 1620. But it could be any gate, a dream gate, a portal to heaven, to another world. Gates are symbolic and often stand for a transformation or travelling between worlds. Gardens are set apart from manor houses by a gate. People drive through gates to enter an estate. Gates impress, transform, and show style; Roman, Art Nouveau, Classical, Medieval or gates are used for defence purposes. Drawings of gates can mean so much and are open to your interpretation.
Commissions are welcome for drawing a favourite place be it a gate home, residence, manor house, hotel, garden, holiday-home, estate, or apartment. Contact me for discussing your preferences.
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,
Three Inches Challenge on Instagram at #incheschallenge2019.
The two bison of Lascaux (Dordogne, France) are eye-catching cave paintings made about 17,000 years ago. I liked them because they are testosterone filled beasts but at the same time, they look cute with their large, round bodies and skinny legs.
During my study of this painting, I found five interesting features. First, the two bison have open mouths. Their open mouths play a big role in the story that is portrayed. Combined with their posture, one almost must conclude that the bison are running away with great urgency. Their open mouths seem to be the result of a fight or a sudden shock that makes them stampede in the opposite direction. For what they are running away, we don’t know for sure, but we may assume they run away from each other, hence the opposite directions, perhaps after a fight over dominance.
But perhaps not. Very few of us see bison frequently or for a long time. Nature documentaries on which most of us rely to see these magnificent beasts often focus on fighting bison because their fights are epic. That fighting picture is imprinted in our minds. But surely most of their lifetime bison do not fight. An alternative thought could be that the shaman/artist, being in a trance state, has seen the bison appearing from the same place of the wall, appearing from a ‘thin place’, a portal from and to the Other-or Underworld, hence the overlapping backsides of the bison.
Another aspect that is perhaps only visible to a trained artist eye is that of foreshortening. Foreshortening is a technical and artistic skill that is clearly visible here. Should you not know what foreshortening is, have a look at God by Michelangelo. Foreshortening is to portray or show (an object or view) as closer than it is or as having less depth or distance, as an effect of perspective or the angle of vision.
Now have a look at how the shaman/artist has drawn the bison, running in the opposite direction. Clearly, they are running towards the viewer, to both sides of the viewer, not away from the viewer. Their back-bodies are smaller in proportion than their front bodies; this is done to enhance the impression that the bison are running towards the viewer. Also, look at their hind legs. The bull on the left stands closer to the viewer than the bull on the right; his legs are a bit lower positioned creating the illusion he is closer to the front. In addition, the right bison’s back is visible above the left bison, which adds to the impression that the right bison is further away. This is very well executed and in full respect of the shape of the legs of the bison.
But this is not all. The shaman/artist has used not only anatomical positioning (legs and tails) and foreshortening to create spatial depth, he/she has also used red pigments on the body (hexagon) as to create a highlight which enhances the foreshortening technique in creating depth.
I like to mention another feature, however I am not in the position to check this in vivo. The two front legs of both bison that do the stampeding are distanced by a small unpainted area from the front bodies of the bison. Such detached front legs add to the impression of wild stampeding beasts. It is as if their front leg is moving so quickly that the shaman/artist can only suggest the wild movements by positioning the leg a bit away from the body. Last, have a look at the heavy fur of the wild beasts. The hair streams in the wind due to their escape from danger.
The shaman/artist who has painted the two bison has done it splendidly. Only the sound of the stampeding seems to be missing but perhaps the shaman created that sound with the help of drums or prehistoric peoples created the sound of stampeding inside the cave themselves. Both drum and stampeding people must have sounded impressive inside a cave, especially when the cave walls throw back the echoes.
For my first study I have focussed on colours; prehistoric cave paintings have beautiful ochre colours. I made a rough pastel sketch to get insight in which colours I needed.
My next study was about finding essential lines. Which are the most essential lines that make up a bison? Which lines shape a bison and set it apart from an ox, or from a Przewalski’s horse? Playing with the lines has resulted in an abstract version of Lascaux’s ‘Crossed Bison’.
For my final drawing, I have built the beasts with layers of heavy pigment coloured pencils (Faber-Castle and Luminance).
After finishing my third drawing, the result surprised me because my bison resemble Lascaux’s ‘Crossed Bison’ but are very different. So, let’s talk about how this study led to a different drawing despite applying foreshortening techniques and staying close to Lascaux’s Crossed Bison composition. Why does my drawing differ so much? The answers lie in the open mouths and the fur of the bison.
My bison haven’t stopped fighting because their mouths are peacefully closed mouths and their fur isn’t wildly shaken by their stampeding. One might assume that an open or closed mouth should not make such difference, but it certainly does. My bison don’t seem to run away for each other or for danger. On the contrary, they look at you naughty and even innocently, like two playing brothers or friends.
The open mouths of the Lascaux bison thus are essential to the story told by the cave painting. The skilful and admirable Lascaux’s artists drew perfect anatomy, showed highly developed artistic techniques, and even better, they told a story of two animals full urgency, perhaps because of hunting or fighting. The gasping for air during a fight or flight, due to running away with their heavy bodies make Lascaux’s bison seem to be in great and urgent stress. By closing their mouths and neglecting shaken-up fur -I only altered two details- I have created bison that seem to prance and romp about happily, perhaps even playfully.
Paintings as stories
All paintings tell stories. What a difference small changes make! To me, this supports the thesis that the shamans/artists of Lascaux painted all details of their cave paintings intentionally. They painted a story with supporting details. Change the details; change the story. By studying this cave painting, by re-creating it, and changing two details, I have brought to light how detailed this cave painting is and how essential details are for the story that is graphically told by Lascaux’s artists. The story itself remains a mystery. But at least we can guess a bit better by paying attention to all deliberately added details. Details are the building blocks of stories that are told from one generation to the next. Details safeguard us for altering stories due to forgetfulness, preferences, or imagination.
Bison of Lascaux by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Kuitenbrouwer’s Bison art study was published in Daub Poetry & Art Inspired by Prehistory, a publication by Simon de Courcey. Out of sale.
I have studied some Dutch Golden Age painters in the past, and Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) was one of my favourite painters. She painted very well, but she also had ten children! It bemuses me how one can paint so exquisitely and have ten children (therefore a minimum of ten pregnancies). One may assume that she died a tragic and premature death, but she did not. Her dated works establish that she painted from the age of 15 until she was 83. When it came to her household, though, she had help, because she could afford it. But I am not planning on writing about my role model. I want to point out that Dutch floral paintings in the Golden Age are an illusion. When we buy lush bouquets at the supermarket, we have little to no knowledge about the plants; we don’t know when they bloom and where they come from. We care a little about seasonable vegetables and fruits, but we don’t know where flowers come from. Golden Age floral painters studied flowers by making meticulous sketches and writing down which colours they needed.
Upon designing a large floral bouquet, they needed to check their notebooks and sketchbooks. This way, they put together flowers that do not bloom at the same time, and they also added seasonal butterflies or insects, therefore showing spring, summer, and autumn in one painting. Nowadays it is easy to consult a book or check a photo, and then put together flowers from all over the world, flowers that never bloom together at the same time. The difference between the Golden Age and now is that we fly in vegetables, fruits, and flowers, and that isn’t good for our carbon footprint. Golden Age painters created prosperous bouquets, not with the help of cargo trucks, cool cells, or air-planes, but with their own notes and sketches.
I am working on the successor of ‘Praising Plants‘, ‘Ode to All Oak Trees‘ and ‘Sophisticated Succulents‘ and returning to William Morris for inspiration. For years, William Morris didn’t appeal that much to me because I was still under the influence of my study of Dutch Baroque floral painters. They, as no one else, could create depth and a feeling as if you were looking at a real bouquet. They positioned their composition in such way that a large flower vases, with all seasonal flowers, would stand proudly on show and you could -in your mind- walk around it. You would admire not only the flowers but also water-drops and insect that rested on big and small petals. But, of course, you were looking at an illusion. Dutch floral painters studied flowers, one by one, made sketches on them, and then set up a composition as if all flowers were all in bloom at the exact same time, which is never the case in nature. A wonderful illusion; a much admired illusion. William Morris looked one dimensional compared to these baroque painters, yet, I learned to see that compared to many modern flower designs, Morris certainly isn’t one dimensional. He may not create as much depth as I would like to see, but he weaves flower stems, creating the feeling as if you are in nature and looking at bushes, trees, and flower beds. Some flowers are near, some further away.
My drawing will have another lovely title using again a two word alliteration. You are invited to guess. However, before doing that, one needs some botanical knowledge and isn’t that not exactly what makes us love William Morris? He educates and inspired us with his design, botanical knowledge, and colourful palette.
William Morris mainly scatters and extends broad leaf foliage, flowers, and sometimes animals for the purpose of creating a repetitive, yet not too repetitive, wall paper design. There is a difference in what we expect from wall-paper, a painting, and from a mural. We expect a mural to trick us like Harry Potter on Platform 9 ¾ : we like to run into the world that is suggested by a mural. Wall-paper, on the other hand, aims at supporting the design and décor of a room. Wall-paper must suggest less depth than a mural or painting, but more than a brick wall, by weaving the stems of flowers and using the technique of foreshortening, Morris does exactly that however not overly.
I have yet many white spaces to fill up with my own designs; this way of freehand drawing is enjoyable.
Here you find more on my William Morris Trellis watercolour painting. (Click here)
Do you remember that I designed a Postage Stamp with two swans, a lotus flower, and a dragonfly? I used them on my correspondence. I added one on a postcard from Oxford to my father in the Netherlands. It received a Royal Mail cancellation mark, which feels like its design has been approved by Royal Mail standards. (I know, cancellation stamps are automated, but let us pretend it was done by a stereotype old man sitting at a wooden desk, carefully inspecting all letters one-by-one).
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.
This 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).
After my ‘Praising Plants’, a large graphite drawing that was sold rather quickly, I decided to continue with botanical theme-drawing and thus I designed ‘Ode to All Oak Trees’.
‘Ode to All Oak Trees’ copyright by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
‘Ode to All Oak Trees’ copyright by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
This drawing has a large oak tree as it centre piece, decorated with William Morris botanical motifs and leaves freehand drawn as its border. In spring a single oak tree produces both male and female flowers (catkins). The acorns are its fruits. We use both the acorns and cupule for crafts while jays eat them and squirrels store them for the winter. Oak wood was often used for building churches because of the density, great strength, and hardness. It is very resistant to insects and fungi. Oak wood was also used for building Viking ships and in Medieval times it was used for interior panelling of prestigious buildings. Oak was used for making barres to store wine and whiskey; its okay, vanilla like flavour is favoured. Mistletoe growing on oak trees were most treasured by druids in Celtic communities; it was harvests with golden sickles.
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.
Stag Drawing copyright Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Stag Drawing Antlers shapshifting into birds that fly to the moon. Copyright Paula Kuitenbrouwer
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.
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.
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.
I drew an engaging Ex Libris is for those who study, love, writes or owns (history) books. Or books on Prehistoric Peoples, Celts, Anglo Saxons, Viking, Medieval or Renaissance books. It shows many areas of interest starting at the Prehistory (top), following anti-clockwise with Saxon-Viking, Medieval and Renaissance border. The inside patterned border is in style with the outer border; upper part shows an Celtic interlace pattern, followed by a Saxon pattern in the Saxon-Viking area, a Medieval, and elegant Renaissance pattern.
The bookshelves show special areas of interest too: the top book shelf shows history books on prehistory. They are all in soft red ochre, the colour that shows up on many prehistoric cave paintings. The book cover embellishments are based on research done by Genevieve von Petzinger, a scientist who identified pictographs used by prehistoric peoples in cave art. You see aviform, circle, cardiform, cruciform, negative and positive hands, serpentiform and so on. The next bookshelf is reserved for Celtic books, showing book-cover embellishments that are typical Celtic. Following is a shelf reserved for Saxon books, (notice ‘Saxon’ written in Saxon letters), and Viking books, showing ‘Viking’ as a transliteration (not as a translation). One bookshelf lower, the books get more colour as they contain Medieval books; the embellishments show a castle, a medieval ‘M’, a crown, flowers, etc. The lowest bookshelf proudly shows Renaissance books that have more bright colours and more floral and decorative embellishments.
The name box is for your name. Might I suggest you do that with sepia-brown ink?
The book plates make a lovely, special and unexpected gift as they are engaging and full details. In fact, one can sit down and take in all details for a long time. ‘Find the Dolmens…’ (in the Celtic border), ‘Admire Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs (Medieval border), ‘Can you locate Florence?’ (Renaissance section), ‘How many Viking shields do you spot?’ (Viking section). One could imagine that the Celtic roundhouses are located in an Irish-British landscape. The Saxon houses could be imagined in Germany. The Viking houses are located near a fjord. The Medieval houses are showing a busy town with less green, buildings are cramped together for defence reasons. The Renaissance buildings are full pride and glory. It must have been dazzling living in a Renaissance city. This Ex Libris shows West European history. It could, however, show another cultural aspect, for instance, a different time-line, a different history related to another part of the world, another religion, history or cultural aspect, a mathematical border, geographical, philosophical, musical, botanical, zoological one. I can draw any Ex Libris that shows personal preferences. Contact me to discuss your commission.
I have drawn with Derwent graphite and Graphitint a border for an Ex Libris, a book plate, that can be used for other means as well. I enjoyed making this border so much and it ignited my imagination. This happened because I started with the border, something I haven’t done before. Normally, I plan a border and I start in the left-upper corner of a drawing because I am right handed. But I hadn’t had an idea for the middle part, so I continued with the border. I ended with a full boarder and consequently thought; ‘This border could be used for any document or certificate, be it a wedding certificate, a gradation document, a photo, a promotion, basically, any document that is highly personal and highly valued, worth customized framing’.
This border shows (I will show it later in full) 4 time lines of our West European history that are loved by a family: the Neolithic Times (shown here in the top -Celtic Roundhouses with dolmens-, Saxon-Viking times, the Late Medieval time, as well as the Renaissance. The Renaissance being visible on this photo too. I added an inside border (shown as a specific pattern related to the time period) and I will now add bookshelves full history books in the middle part.
This is a very full drawing and it keeps me busy. But I love seeing it grow into an engaging piece that expresses the love for history this family has. Yes, it could show another cultural aspect, for instance, a mathematical border, geographical, philosophical, musical, botanical, zoological one, I can draw any border that shows personal preferences.
Return here within a week and the full Ex Libris will be ready.
Recently, I found out that one can buy online postage stamps. It is very handy but such ‘post stamp’ appears to be a sudoku-like 9 square code that you pen down in the upper right corner of an envelope. Handy but disappointing, especially when you enjoy receiving a neatly handwritten envelope with an exotic postage stamp.
As so much digitalization is met with a return to pre-computer behaviour, like note booking, calligraphy, and snail-mail, I decided to return to using post stamps too. I bought a bag of old, hobby postage stamps that are used by Hobonichi journalling or notebook designing, and added them next to the postage codes. Somehow that didn’t do the job. And so, I set out to design a post stamp that shows a lovely nature scene, elegance, and spaciousness.
With much pleasure, I designed this Ex Libris or book-plate in Art Nouveau or Jugendstil style. I consulted art books that I had almost forgotten about and I enjoyed refreshing my knowledge of the Art Nouveau movement. I decided to draw a tree, a window for (your) name, hills, a stream, and of course some embellishments.
This is a large graphite drawing (about the size of A3) beautifully and softly rendered, titled ‘Praising Plants’. I have set up this drawing as a way to show gratitude towards (house) plants. They provide us with oxygen, hence the text ‘Thank Your for your O2,’ a word rhyme that names oxygen by its element. Instead of drawing plants in pots, I have used a frame decorated with Ginkgo leaves. These leaves are found near Ginkgo trees, often in growing in botanical gardens or in Asian cities. Inside the border, I have added two plant motifs, Acanthus and Pimpernel Bay-leaf Manilla, inspired by William Morris, a British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. The two other plant motifs are designed by me; Bamboo and Lotus flower.
One should see this drawing as a garden, as a local botanical garden in which one can deeply relax and become thankful for what plants do for us. Not only do they provide us with oxygen, but also with soul nourishment and above all, with beauty. Frame this drawing and feel inspired by what plants mean for us and how they can enchant us with their intricate patterns. I sell this original and there are no copies available. This makes this drawing unique gift.
To reconnect with nature and with the past, we recently visited a few burial mounts near Ootmarsum in Twente (NL). This is a protected archaeological site and visiting this sleepy site feels as if one enters a thin place.
Here was found the ‘Man of Mander’, a shadow figure in stone (body imprint in stone) of a person almost of 2 metres tall and having no feet. He has probably been a Stone Age hunter or farmer. As a burial gift, for the Afterlife, he carried a stone arrow head. Why his feet are missing asks for careful analysing. One explanation could be that he was encouraged by his tribal members not to dwell on Earth as a spirit, instead to journey to the After Life.
This area has had its burial chambers too, or ‘hunnebedden’ in Dutch, but they have long gone. Farmers and builders were, like us, eager to re-use large stones for building a nearby church and a pigsty. This sounds grinch-worthyand it surely is, but stones have a habit of looking perfect for re-using.
Standing there, in the cold, enchanted by the place, I read a poem about the burial mounts written by Mr. B.W.A.E baron Sloet tot Olthuys (1807-1884). The poem describes how the poet stands, like we did, near the burial mounts and muses about who lies there ‘sleeping for centuries’. All the sudden the poet becomes aware of a man. The man starts asking him questions. How is to believe in one god instead of many; how it is to work for another instead as for oneself? Is the poet as free and as in harmony has he, the Stone Age hunter, feels? I loved reading this poem because of the importance of empathy and asking questions (Cognitive Archaeology). Studying the unwritten past is like looking into a mirror and seeing our modern life and conditioning reflected. Asking questions to those living in the past is making an effort to step outside oneself, which is a very difficult yet wise thing to do from time to time.
I am much impressed by Celtic art and as a result of being so inspired I have summarized the Celts from the West Theory in a ‘Celtic’ artistic style, as a way of Bardic story-telling, in which we aren’t sure what is fact and what is story-telling.
(Reconstruction of the Lady of Vix’s face based on her skeleton)
Allow me to present lady Vix, a highly gifted and deformed woman, born in the ancient Portuguese city Tartessos, in the first millennium BC. She inspires a local artist to chisel her in stone, riding a horse, side-saddled because of her deformities. Later this statute, identified by archaeologists as that of a Celtic Goddess, is found in San Bartolomeu de Messines along with Tartessian letters. About 97 other Tartessian inscriptions on stone convince Koch that Tartassian was a Paleohispanic Celtic language.
Tartessos isn’t big enough for Lady Vix and soon she is on her way to spread her metalworking skills. She, and other traders, use Tartassian as a trading and metal-work related vocational language. Phylogenetic work (Gray and Atkinson, 2003) offers a date of the development of Celtic language, which is about the 4th millennium BC.’
Lady Vix travels extensively, using Atlantic sea-ways to visit Brittany and the British Isles. Along with spreading metal working fashion, increasing artistic awareness is responsible for establishing ‘ahighdegreeofculturalsimilaritiesdisplayedbymaritimecommunities’ (Cunliffe, 1999) along the Atlantic coast. Such as upstanding angular stones, Cliff Castles along the entire Atlantic façade, and circularity in domestic architecture. We can’t be sure this is Lady Vix’s and her apprentices influence exclusively but with many women written out of history, one should be mindful of missing women when stumbling upon gaps in our knowledge.
The bards’ story-telling about the influence of Lady Vix inspire local village heads to adopt Celtic place names. Later linguistic research, by Patrick Simms-Williams (2006), offers maps with high density of Celtic places, resulting in linguistic geographical evidence for the ‘Celtic from the West’ model. It is also thought that Celtic language spreads further ‘as a supra-regional language of Bell Beaker groups, as maps of Bell Beaker burials and Celtic language Bronze age maps show remarkable similarities.
The last successor of Lady of Vix is found in a burial mount in Burgundy, France (dating from 500 BC). Next to her remains stands an extraordinary Greek wine mixing vessel that tells us that trade, charisma and metalworking skills have been interrelated for a long time.
(CGI of Lady Vix’s burial chamber)
The last known Lady in the Vix tradition is buried away from the Atlantic Celtic language zones as the long line of successors have used thousands of years of trading coastal, riverine and migratory networks from Portugal to the British Isles, from the Atlantic coast to the east of Europe. The Roman Herodotus was right after all that the Celts lived near the Pyrenees, ‘beyond the Pillars of Hercules’’. Lady Vix and contemporaries have brought their DNA to the British Isles which leads in 2006 to Oppenheimer stating that the ancestors of today’s British and Irish populations arrived from Spain about 16,000 years ago.
From Tartessos, like Lady Vix.
P.S. I wrote this story being inspired by my course ‘Who are the Celts’, at Department for Continuing Education University of Oxford. I tried to bring knowledge together on Celtic sea-way trading, Celtic metallurgy, Celtic DNA, and Female Druidism. I hope you have enjoyed my story. Should you feel the ambition to unravel what is fact and what is fiction, I highly recommend the course at Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education. Having said that, the footnotes might be helpful too.
 Koch, J. Tartessian, Europe’s newest and oldest Celtic language. Published in Celts: Issue II (Mar/Apr 2009), Prehistory/Archaeology, Vol.17.
 More on Celtic inscriptions and identification of Celtic place names: Koch. J. An atlas for Celtic studies (Oxford, 2008).
 Gibson, C. & Wodtko D, The background of the Celtic languages: theories from archaeology and linguistics, p. 5
 Others suggest it goes back to the 2nd-3rd millennium BC.
 Cunliffe, B. Atlantic Sea-ways. Revista de Guimaraes, Volumne Espeiual, I. Guimaraes, 1999, pp. 93-105.
 Gibson, C. & Wodtko D, The background of the Celtic languages: theories from archaeology and linguistics, p. 7
 Harrison, R.J., Jackson, R. and Napthan, M., 1999 A rich Bell Beaker burial from Wellington Quarry, Marden, Herefordshire, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 18, no. 1, pp 1–16.
 Beyond the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ refers to the Straits of Gibraltar, what is now southern Portugal, were the ancient city Tartassos was located.
 Cunliffe, B. 2003. The Celts, a Very Short Introduction. Oxford; OUP. Chapter 2.
 Oppenheimer, S., 2006 Origins of the British: A genetic detective story, Constable & Robinson Ltd.
This is my contribution to my “Who are the Celts’ course at Oxford Department for Continuing Education, week 5 ‘Celtic Art’ (2017). At the end of a demanding study week the participants were challenged to make their own Celtic art, a drawing, woodwork, or poem, whatever your prefer.
I was always in awe when I saw Celtic art in museums but I was never challenged or commissioned to make Celtic art. For doing this project, I had to remove my anxiety for rigid mathematical organization (the patterns and swirls). I liked the part of focussing on mythology, faces, and animals.
The article on the enchantment of technology, that I had to read during the course, inspired me to embrace a geometrical challenge for making Celtic patterns. I enjoyed the challenge more than I beforehand thought possible.I used golden/silver ink-pens, ordinary Bic blue pens, art paper, a protector and many rulers.
I like to present an idea about prehistoric positive and negative hand-prints that are found all over the world and dating from circa 40.000 to 1.000 BCE. There is a remarkable difference between red and white hand-prints. The message, to my understanding, is that both hand-prints testify of successful communication with deceased souls. Why I have come to this thesis, I will explain.
There is research stating that prehistoric peoples believed that the soul of the dead lived on in rock or in stone (stones or stone walls). If this sounds strange, think of modern examples that resonate with this belief: we have the venerated Wailing Wall, we touch stone tombs, crosses, statutes, and monuments or lay flowers at the foot of them showing our respect.
Thinking that the soul of the dead lived on in stone isn’t hard to imagine as stone is everlasting (apart from some eroding) and impenetrable. The ever-lasting and impenetrable quality of stone symbolizes death; people are away for ever and out of reach. But are they? Not to prehistoric peoples who lived in their world full animal, nature or ancestral spirits. For communication with the deceased, the living sought their ancestral spirits in special places; deep in caves, high on mountains or hills.
We do the same. We visit graveyards, throw flowers in bodies of water, send our prayers to heaven. Or we hold close memorabilia, things prehistoric people didn’t have. Imagine being without memorabilia to hold close in times of grief. Imagine how important it was for prehistoric people to communicate with the dead; to ask for their advice and wisdom. Or to invite them back into the world of living, which was an obvious thing to do as prehistoric people lived with the spirits of their dead, they were dwelling in their house, in their lakes or on nearby hilltops. Inviting back family members or tribal leaders who had stood out and were important or even regarded irreplaceable, isn’t a huge mind-stretch when one assumes his or her spirit is lingering nearby and shamans could journey to the spirit world to communicate with these valuable and beloved tribal members.
There are many different interpretations of the functions of cave hand stencils. They are seen as ancient fingerprint identifications; ‘I have been here in this cave’. Or as traffic signs, informing us about the location of fertile hunting grounds, or they were handshakes (one tribe is greeting another tribe). In any case, hand-prints were serving a form of communication. The most remarkable fact about prehistoric hand stencils to me, for me observed as an artist, is that they come as positive and negative prints, creating red and white hand images.
Making red and white hand images requires a different technique, which, to me, shows two different communications are expressed; the message of light-against-dark hand-prints versus dark-against-light hand prints.
From here, we could assume that the hand-prints that were red, were the hand-prints of the living expressed with red ochre being the colour of blood and thus of the living. The white hand-prints are the hand-prints that expressing and representing the deceased. They are white because being dead is being bloodless, pale or white.
A cave that shows hand-prints, both reddish and whitish, holds a message to visitors that this is a sacred place, a ‘thin’ place, a penetrable place where communication with the spirit world is possible and successful. Supportive of this thesis is that a few speleologists (Chauvet cave, France) felt ‘spirits of long ago’ after discovering a prehistoric cave.
On some cave paintings many hand-prints are found, illogically applied, some easy within reach, others not so easy to apply. It seems like that prehistoric people were trying to locate the thinnest place of the walls, that, as a thin veil or membrane, was hanging as a semi-permeable divide between the world of the living and the dead, allowing communication with the dead. As a doctor feels a patient, as an artist feels a canvas, as a blind person feels a face, so prehistoric people felt a wall, trying to make contact and marking their hands as red, as from the living. Where they felt contact with spirits, with the deceased, they set white hand-prints to mark communication was established. Should they return to the depths of a cave, they could use the marks on the wall.
We know that hand-prints were often applied by women (Professor Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University) but certainly not all of them as there are also hand-prints of both genders and of all ages. Still, it is important to know that most were female hand-prints. What is the extra value of women over men? Let me be succinct and point out to reproduction. Only within a woman’s body reproduction can take place and a soul can descend into a fertile womb. This quality of a woman had her, more than others, touch prehistoric cave walls inviting a spirit back into her womb. Again, I like to point out how prehistoric caves resemble human flesh, with their stalagmites and stalactites resembling membranes, male and female genitals.
To enter Earth’s womb made prehistoric people set of long and laborious journeys into dark and dangerous deep caves. Then, arriving there, in a womb like interior, performing or reacting a conception ritually (and perhaps not only ritually as the cave of Laussel suggests), but more importantly spiritually by communicating with the dead must have been a consolatory and a rewarding ritual when, a few months later, a baby was welcomed to the community. Communications with the dead might have been assisted through shamanistic rituals, enhanced by the illusions the visual stimulating cave paintings created, and by the intake of paint pigments, which might have been used as psychedelic drugs.
Perhaps shamans or psychedelic drugs weren’t even needed. Imagine changing stages of consciousness by dwelling for a longer time deep in a cave that is completely dark and still, in a cave that isn’t affected by the outside world. No rain, no wind, no thunder, no light other than that of torches and ear deafening silence. Imagine the smell of smoke and a sense of being inside a living organism that shows its fleshy interior. This was the strange world where the dead lived as it was cold and dark, yet it looked alive and organic too. Here you were as close to the dead as possible and here communication with the dead should be able to take place.
A combination of a wish to communicate with the deceased, alternating stages of consciousness, and the belief that the dead were dwelling behind these fleshy walls, inside an organism in which you had descended too, here contact with the dead was possible. Although the deceased lived in stone, these fleshy coloured walls, seemed to move and pulsate under the lights of torches, and these walls didn’t look impenetrable.
It was a matter of finding the thinnest spot, but touching, by feeling the wall. And thus, the thinnest curve in a rock that allowed communications were touched with red hand prints. And if prehistoric cave dwellers felt communicating with a deceased family or tribal member was answered, a white hand print, was added with a white hand stencil signature.
A supporting idea for white hand prints marking established contact with the dead, is to be found the hardship a small community suffered by crawling into a deep cave, a seriously dangerous and laborious task, a task that was only worth to be undertaken if it served a cause worth its hardship and danger. Bringing back a wise dead family or tribal member would fit such cause. Not only as a remedy against overwhelming sense of loss, also to regain wisdom, elementary knowledge or status to a tribe.
What can be brought up against my idea? Many things, like that some hand prints were from men and children. However, it isn’t hard to imagine a grief-stricken child in need for communication with a lost parent being helped by other tribal members or their shaman. Refuting my idea by stating that if white hands represented the dead touching and answering to the call, these hands should have been mirrored, fails as one can’t touch a stone wall from within. But one can use different coloured hand-prints.
Putting a few aspects together; hand prints serving communication, prehistoric people thinking that their ancestors lived on in the world of rock, most hand prints were applied by women, supports an idea that pregnant women were assisted by their tribe or community to enter a cave, touch the ancestral world in order to communicate with a deceased soul to invite them back into the realm of the living. Red hand prints were left on cave-walls as to testify people attempted to contact deceased tribal members, white hand images were added as a sign communicating with the dead had taken place.
Hand images have emerged around the world over a period of some 40,000 years. Any symbol, be it a hand or a circle, can represent a multiplicity of meanings and motives or change in their meaning related to rituals, sacred rites or ceremonies. I have highlighted only my idea. There are many ideas and theories.
N.B. Inevitably I am, as a lay person, simplifying and generalizing archaeological research. I hold a degree in Philosophy, studied ‘Religion and Rituals in Prehistory’ at Oxford Department of Continuing Education, and have read many books on prehistoric art. However, my essay is presenting an idea (only), unpretentiously, and it welcomes criticism.
Should you be interested in reading my essay ‘Stonehenge through art’, I am willing to print it and send it to you as you are probably like me not willing to read long pieces from a screen. One should sit down with a cup of tea, a cereal bar or a bar of chocolate and have some intellectual quality time by reading instead of being distracted by your computer screen.
Stonehenge is like a church in a big city in the south of the Netherlands. Most likely this church has been built before Roman times but currently will house modern apartments, or a movie-theater, a concert venue, an art gallery or will still be in function as a church. In other words, the building shows how adaptable it is to different social needs. Stonehenge has a much longer but equally varied succession of functions.
I take the freedom to bring artistic interpretations to the scene, alongside with archaeological references, because Stonehenge is such powerful visual icon. Visiting Stonehenge offers a different experience compared to overgrown Neolithic hill-forts like Tara Hill in Ireland. Stonehenge’s visual impact has, since it first days, not lost any of its appeal. It has inspired artists, writers, and photographers and it is therefore justifiable to include artworks in this assignment. Next to art resources, ‘Researching Stonehenge; Theories Past and Present’, by Mike Parker Pearson has providing me with an overview of research done at Stonehenge as well as evolving insights into rituals functions of Stonehenge.
A 14th Century Print with Merlin Building Stonehenge
In this 14th century print we see Merlin, as an unshaven giant, helping humans building Stonehenge. Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155) thought that Stonehenge was originally built in Ireland by giants and was later relocated to Britain to function as a temple for ancient druids. The temple function of Stonehenge was confirmed in Roman times by Hecateus who assumed Stonehenge to be a temple for honouring Apollo. John Aubrey/William Stukeley, both mid-17th century, proposed a likewise theory. Aubrey and Stukeley thought Stonehenge was built before the Romans. Stukeley, a member of Freemasonry, even took druidry up himself and attempted to date Stonehenge for the first time. He wrongly ascribed the building of Stonehenge to druids. Later, Lieutenant-Colonel William Hawley (1851–1941), a British archaeologist undertaking pioneering excavations at Stonehenge, followed Stukeley’s theory Stonehenge was indeed a temple, for priests and for nobles.
Despite archaeologists disapproving with Stonehenge as a ‘temple of the Druids’ as modern dating methods indicate that Stonehenge was built long before the time of the Druids, up to today druid-style dressed up visitors celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge.
Stonehenge as imagined in Francis Grose
Returning to the suggested relation between druids and Stonehenge, I present this engraving which shows a druid holding mistletoe and a sickle. The druid obviously has collected mistletoe and is now turning towards Stonehenge. What connects druids, mistletoe and Stonehenge? Mistletoe was regarded a sacred herb as it grows without soils between heaven and earth. Mistletoe growing on oak tree is rare, which has been noticed and utilized in the Celtic world. Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79 AD), a Roman author also known as Pliny the Elder, describes a Celtic ritual sacrifice at which a druid, dressed in white, climbs an oak tree collecting mistletoe with the help of a sickle. This was done with great ceremony on the sixth day of the moon, by using a golden coloured sickle. Mistletoe, according to druids, as recorded by Pliny the Elder, increased fertility of cattle. This could have been important to Salisbury farming communities. Old theories, by Geoff Wainwright and Francis Grose both connecting Stonehenge to Druidic practices, stressing healing properties, re-emerge in 2006 when Tim Darvill uses the studies of Wainwright where he theorizes that Merlin collects the blue-stones from Ireland because of their healing properties. There is no archaeological evidence that Stonehenge blue stones were relocated from Ireland. They come from West-Wales’ Preseli Hills. Thus the theory changes but keeps Stonehenge associated with healing rituals because Preseli’s holy wells were believed by Medieval people to offer healing water. Water throw against the blue stones of Stonehenge likewise resulted in to empowering water with healing properties. Up till the 18th century visitors of Stonehenge chiselled off pieces of blue stones believing these pieces to have curative powers. Stonehenge’s healing hypothesis has survived the test of time despite that its focus changed from mistletoe utilizing healing rituals to healing properties of Stonehenge’s blue stones.
Wiltshire, a stylized 1700s look at Stonehenge
The artist of this etching or drawing, shows two groups of people as such expressing two different ritual functions of Stonehenge. There is a clear distinction in fashion between the men standing within Stonehenge circular structure and those who are working at the front. The artist shows neatly dressed men as researches, noblemen or landowners within Stonehenge. More importantly, brought to the front, are (probably) grave robbers. They have just unearthed a skull and three large bones. Hence, Stonehenge is depicted in its function as a place of (elite) interest, as well in its sepulchral function as it is surrounded by interesting burials that are worth robbing. It doesn’t comes as a surprise that only a skull and some large (human?) bones are found in Stonehenge’s ditch as in Neolithic times human and animal bones were offered or buried in ditches or under buildings. It was William Flinders Petrie, working on Stonehenge between 1874-1880, who suggested that Stonehenge’s function was ‘sepulchral, religious, astronomical and monumental’.
In the 1920s Lieutenant-Colonel William Hawley (1851–1941), a British archaeologist digs up nearly 60 cremated and uncremated human remains inside Stonehenge; the remains are reburied in 1935. Hawley’s excavations confirm Stonehenge’s funerary function. In 2002 of the grave of the Amesbury Archer, 3 miles from Stonehenge, is found by archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology. The grave dates back to 2,300 BC and is richest array of items ever found from this period thus leading to the believe that the archer possibly was the King of Stonehenge.
In 2007 the Stonehenge Riverside Project and the Beaker People Project radiocarbon date surviving skeletal remains. This results in establishing Stonehenge’s cemetery function as from the early third millennium BC. Interpreting Stonehenge’s ritual function, as far back as the 1700s, as a burial place that has seen different funerary rituals and mortuary practices has thus been supported by past and recent (2007) archaeological research.
Avebury, Stonehenge and The Rollright Stones 1806
As far back as in 1806, somebody with drawing skills, connects Avebury, Stonehenge and the Rollright stones in Oxfordshire. Later, long-term multidisciplinary research discovers that Stonehenge stands at the heart of a vast Neolithic landscape with temples, burial mounds, pits and ritual shrines. As one of the most rewarding archaeological research being done on Stonehenge, the Stonehenge Riverside Project, lasting over 10 years, connects Stonehenge to other Neolithic monuments, i.e. Durrington Wall, the Cursus, Amesbury, Woodhenge and the Preseli Hills in Wales. The person who drew Avebury, Stonehenge and the Rollright stones in1806 similarly tries to connect Neolithic monuments, by drawing them with similar compositional perspective and thus trying to see resemblances in appearance and character. However, there have been long interludes in which theorizing about the function of Stonehenge was done in isolation, not relating Stonehenge to its prehistoric landscape features, that are ‘teeming with previously unseen archaeology’ (Vince Gaffney, 2014).
A pen drawing and watercolour by George Heywood Maunoir Sumner (1853–1940) c. 1920.
Visible in this pen drawing of Stonehenge, seen from the north west, are the upright positioned Aubrey Holes, a ring of fifty-six (56) chalk pits, named after the seventeenth-century John Aubrey who identified them. Although the Aubrey Holes date back to the earliest phases of Stonehenge (4th millennium BC), their purpose is still discussed.
Before Pearson’s Stonehenge Riverside Project, Stonehenge has been proposed to a monument to honour Apollo (Hecates of Abdera, 4th century BC), a religious monument for Druids (John Audrey), a monument for the dead (Sir Arthur Evans 1851-1941), an astronomical centre (Sir Norman Lockyer 1836-1920), and an astronomical observatory (Gerald S. Hawkins (1982-2003). Also, Stonehenge has been identified as a Neolithic Lourdes, a place were people with illnesses travelled to, even as far as from Switzerland, as the Amesbury Arches shows, in hope for a cure. Trepanation probably took place at Stonehenge (R. Atkinson, 1920-1994). Despite research and restorations, Stonehenge remains ‘a terra incognita, an icon, occupying one of the richest archaeological landscapes in the world’ (Vince Gaffney).
Artworks dating back as far as the 14th century show a varied succession of theories about Stonehenge. Putting all research together holistically and evaluating Stonehenge in relation to neighbouring monuments, offers hope we will succeed in understanding Stonehenge in its different functions. Interpretations of the ritual nature of Stonehenge have changed, expanded, have been refuted and have been upgraded. Having concluded that, is safe to state that Stonehenge has seen a long succession of varied rituals, many of them being related to health, burial and ancestral honouring.
Paula Kuitenbrouwer studied Philosophy (Utrecht/Amsterdam) and works currently as an artist at mindfuldrawing.com.
This assignment was written for ‘Ritual and Religion in Prehistory’, Oxford Department for Continuing Education, a course Paula thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommends. Copyright 2017
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?
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.
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.
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.
Koi carp, or more specifically nishikigoi are a group of fish that are ornamental varieties of domesticated common carp that are kept for decorative purposes in outdoor koi ponds or water gardens. Koi carps are mesmerizing. People are willing to pay big money for a pretty carp fish. An ‘Agasi’, the blue koi, is particularly pretty. I think I know why.
Some time ago I sat next to a large pond that was filled with koi with beautiful colours and patterns. I looked at them and looked at them. I sat and sat and got mesmerized. I asked myself why I was I so intensely enjoying sitting next to this pond and looking at the slow and gently moving fish? I just didn’t want to go home, I couldn’t get enough of it. Suddenly I understood. The pond with koi had become my thinking. Each koi represented one thought, a thought that lighted up against the dark, deep pond. Thought swam in and out of my mind and koi carp swam in and out of my vision. The more the fish got used to me and I to them, the slower they appeared and disappeared. Simultaneously, my thinking process became a flow; it slowed down and became less demanding. I became aware of my thoughts coming and going, like the koi. Sitting by the pond and looking at the colourful, smooth swimming fish became a spontaneous meditation. Has this meditation helped me to understand the obsession with koi and the willingness to spend a monthly salary on a beautiful Agasi? Yes, I do understand now, but that doesn’t mean I became obsessed because that is a choice. However, I decided to draw a koi-series to capture the meditation experience in coloured pencil drawings. Every time I look at my drawing I want to feel that meditation again. And I hope others feel it too while looking at my drawing. This happened years ago and I’m still drawing ponds with koi. I still must be mesmerized.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.