Cosmic Christ Transfigured

In the July seminar at Whitecliffe College of Art and Design I exhibited for assessment two paintings. Today I would like to contemplate and discuss the painting of Cosmic Christ Transfigures on Mars.

Cosmic Christ
G. Barnes. ‘Cosmic Christ Transfigures on Mars’ (Egg tempera and gold leaf on gesso, 45cm x 60cm)

This egg tempera painting on gesso board is a synthesis of two primary images. The Christ figure is from a byzantine sacred icon of ‘The Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor’ and the landscape is appropriated from a NASA photo taken from their robot ‘Spirit’ as it travels across the terrain of the planet Mars.

Today, August the 6th, is the feast day of The Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church calendar. It is one of their principal feasts, and plays an important role in the Eastern Orthodox faith, as in this event Christ’s two natures are made clearly visible. In front of human witnesses – Christ exchanges his earthly form for his divine form and then returns to his earthly form. ‘According to the doctrine of Hesychasm the light which Christ radiated on Mount Tabor is eternal and is visible through reflection and introspection.’ (Roozemond-Van Ginhoven, p. 25)

Hesychia is the stillness and silence of inward prayer – waiting upon God in emptiness and quietness. Putting aside human thoughts and words. Also the original intention of the word metanoeo (the unfortunate word ‘repent’ is mainly used in English translations).

The gospels spell it out thus:

And Christ was transfigured before them (Peter, James and John): and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was as white as the light. … [Peter then expressed how good it was to be there and naively suggested perhaps they build some sort of altar??! GB]  … While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I Am well pleased; hear ye him. And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were sore afraid,” (Matt 17:2-7, Mark 9:2-13, Luke 9:28-36)

In my painting I have deferred from the original byzantine expression, with all the characters involved (see below) in order to focus on the sole figure and eternal moment of Transfiguration as expressed through the image of Christ. I have situated this event upon a landscape in the cosmos which no human eyes have beheld, or is likely to ever behold – in the camera we trust, just as in the enduring Archetype we may also trust. We are missing witnesses from the Transfiguration event, as we also we do not have verifiable witnesses of the planet Mars. The witness has become you, as you contemplate. Whether you trust the account of Mars, or the vision of the Godhead – is up to you.

The Transfiguration was not a phenomenon circumscribed in time and space; Christ underwent no change at that moment, even in His human nature, but  change occurred in the awareness of the apostles, who for a time received the power to see their Master as He was, resplendent in the eternal light of the Godhead.’ (Lossky, p. 223)

5_big_aidan
Aidan Hart. “Transfiguration’

This cosmic Christ is a fully aware Being – a Human clothed in uncreated Glory  – It was Light that the apostles saw – eternal, infinite, existing outside space and time. It is divine and uncreated. Terrifying and unbearable to the apostles, being so foreign to human nature. Only one character within the Judaic-Christian revelations was never ever struck down and blinded by this Light when revealed – and that is the underrated figure of Mary Magdalene – certainly a subject for another painting!

Revealing himself through His creative ‘thought-wills’, God can be known in creatures and by means of creatures, but He can also be known immediately by mystical contemplation, in His uncreated energies which are the splendour of His face. It is thus, in His Godhead, that Christ appeared to the apostles on Mount Tabor, and it is thus that He makes Himself known to the saints who detach themselves from all created things, renouncing all finite knowledge in order to attain to union with God …. We are reminded here of the ecstasy of St. Benedict of Nursia, who saw the whole universe as if it had been gathered together into a beam of the divine light. (Lossky, p. 99)


Dionysius the Areopagite, also spoke of ‘rays of divinity’. He is a fascinating figure from the very early days of Christian revelation, (in either the 1st or 4th century – there is debate about the time he wrote). Dionysius wrote of the creative powers which penetrate throughout the universe, and make themselves known, not through any created being, but by an interior light. His work primarily questions the ability to represent God in a material way. On further reading of his work, one is led to think that images of the Godhead, sacred icons, and other human representations of Divinity must have abounded at the time. Possibly most of these images were destroyed during the iconoclasm?

And when we have received, with immaterial and unflinching mental eyes, the gift of Light, primal and super-primal, of the supremely Divine Father, which manifests to us the most blessed Hierarchies of the Angels in types and symbols, let us then, from it, be elevated to its simple splendour  ….  For it is not possible that the supremely Divine Ray should otherwise illuminate us, except so far as it is enveloped, for the purpose of instruction, in variegated sacred veils, and arranged naturally and appropriately, for such as we are, by paternal forethought. (Dionysius, Ch.1 Sc. 1)

Surely these ‘rays’ penetrate the entire solar system? And yet they are variegated, veiled – for our safety perhaps. And as we humans make our fledging and clumsy explorations of space – we only learn how little it is that we know for sure. The universe does not shed her veils easily either. But this is actually the essence of it – the Transfiguring Christ and the photo of a Mars Landscape are both mysterious encounters. Heaven intersecting Creation. Positioning this intersection on Mars requires us to blow apart the Heaven and Earth dichotomy we have grown up with, and enables us to swing our brains around differently. Because – up there – is also ‘earth’ or Creation. It requires us to look elsewhere for ‘heaven’ – and not just UP. Heaven is within us? All around, embedded in the fabric of  space. Creation is Matter /Elements. Is Heaven is the Space/Energy in between?

What is a mystery? A mystery is something that is ‘revealed for our understanding, but which we can never understand exhaustively.’ It leads us into the depth, and into the darkness of God. ‘The eyes are closed – but they are also opened’ (Ware, p. 15). Bishop Kallistos Ware also refers to a term which helps me to fathom this way of unknowing which he calls ‘thick darkness’ or ‘dazzling darkness.’  I think humanity also fathoms space in the same light (darkness). The plethora of strange worlds and alien creatures we have invented to inhabit the cosmos is a measure of the impenetrability of the universe.

Why is this starting to sound like a sermon? Well, I think the work of the artist is indeed the same as the theologian.  We are trying to describe transcendence and find a way to express the mysterious tremendum. Is this also the work of that modern invention – the Contemporary Artist? We heard from two contemporary artists during the seminar whose practise is also one of exploring mystery.

During the seminar, artist and conjuror, Dane Mitchell spoke of his art as a means to ‘invoke some unseen thing; and to ‘illuminate illuminations.’ He talked of ‘mystic states’ and ‘revelation vs. concealment.’ The language of a theologian practising art – surely? But while Mitchell provides the ‘containers’ of the artwork, in the form of glass cases, white rooms or boxes – he employs mystic practitioners to fill them up with ghosts, hauntings, and other unseen presences. He specifies the time and place – but the artwork is ‘activated’ by the rituals of practitioners who have already built gateways to the etheric realm.

Mitchell is not the conjuror, he is merely the means by which the conjuring is revealed. He is not even providing a tunnel, or a path, or a window to this world. But a box. Mitchell encapsulates everything in containment, creating well defined boundaries in order to confine. Borders provide the security of a spatial fastening to the tangible – is it only within the cognizant spatial borders of our lives that we feel safe? An etheric world of ghosts and hauntings without boundary is truly terrifying, indeed probably the stuff that mythologies of Hell are built upon. His practise seems to be an exercise in terror remediation – a kind of dampening down rather than an opening up of theological enquiry.

Australian media artist Grant Stevens confessed to being afraid of the ‘power of the image’ early in his career and so he abandoned it in favour of text, primarily animated cosmic clusters of text in video projections. Nevertheless, and contrarily, he is quite unafraid to explore raw authentic human emotion. His work deals with issues of love and loss, annoying mental thoughts, sanity, death. At once very profound, and also quite banal. Is he trying to go beyond the ‘supermundane’, as Dionysius calls it, of symbol and image, and raise our mind to a contemplation of heavenly things without ‘material guidance’ – beyond the imitation?

Wherefore, the Divine Institution of sacred Rites, having deemed it worthy of the supermundane imitation of the Heavenly Hierarchies, and having depicted the aforesaid immaterial Hierarchies in material figures and bodily compositions, in order that we might be borne, as far as our capacity permits, from the most sacred pictures to the instructions and similitudes without symbol and without type, transmitted to us our most Holy Hierarchy. For it is not possible for our mind to be raised to that immaterial representation and contemplation of the Heavenly Hierarchies, without using the material guidance suitable to itself,’ (Dionysius, Ch1)

Is it possible to do this? Dionysius suggests it is not. Can we depict transcendence without material figures and bodily compositions, to have revelation without symbol, without type? What is that then???!  It’s quite a journey for an artist, who is up to it? I will continue to wrestle with the Image, and I will banish all borders in the Dark. : )

‘The darkness is not the absence of light, but the terror that comes from blinding light.’ Jacob Boehme

‘... every procession of illuminating light, proceeding from the Father, whilst visiting us as a gift of goodness, restores us again gradually as an unifying power, and turns us to the oneness of our conducting Father, and to a deifying simplicity.’ Dionysius

REFERENCES

Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1899) The Celestial Hierarchy. Vol. 2. p.1-66.

Lossky, Vladimir (1976) The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. St Vladimirs Seminary Press: New York

Roozemond-Van Ginhoven, Hetty J. (1980) Ikon: Inspired Art. De Wijenburgh: Netherlands.

Ware, Bishop Kallistos (1979) The Orthodox Way. St Vladimirs Seminary Press: New York

The VEIL and ICONS IN SPACE

Retrieving a dusty copy of “The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross” from my shelf, I read:

“The less distinct is their understanding of him, the closer they approach him, as Prophet David says: he made darkness his hiding place [Ps. 18:1.1] Thus in drawing near him you will experience darkness because of the weakness of your eye. You do well then, at all times, in both adversity and prosperity, whether spiritual or temporal, to consider God as hidden, and call after him thus: “Where have you hidden, Beloved?” (St. John of the Cross, p. 483)

St John, a Spanish Carmelite monk (1542-1591), postulates that the bosom of the Father, the divine essence, is alien to every mortal eye and hidden from every human intellect. This is called ‘negative theology’ – a theology where God is beyond all that exists and that it is by unknowing that one may know Him, by drawing near to the Unknown in the darkness of complete ignorance. A first century Christian mystic, Dionysius the Areopagitic (a disciple of St Paul) first put up the concept:

“For even as light, and especially abundance of light, renders darkness invisible; even so the excess of knowledge, destroys the ignorance which is the only way by which one can attain to God himself.”(Lossky; 1944, p. 25)

Wonderful dichotomy; beautiful and mysterious. Satisfying the dark and the morbid, as well as the craving and the light of my soul – all at the same time. Considering these themes, (as well as one can in a busy urban contemporary life!), led me to wonder how one might draw God, as part of my Sacred Art investigation, if he is thus Unknowable? Obviously – to really understand this requires a lifetime of mystic reflective work – which is just not practical in my life at present. This is why I love being an artist. We are practical beings. We make stuff. Things that can express half formed ideas and pre-conceptions. So, this led me to two practical and physical concepts to work with – the VEIL, and GOD IN SPACE.

1. THE VEIL: Painting it, using it to cover, to hide, to suppress. It’s seductive power – our longing to see what’s beneath. Repression of desire and and subversion of rampant voyuerism. The ‘covered image’ has another voice, beyond the voice the ‘image’ has – what is hidden and why? Another story is created.

I stumbled across this beautiful photographic exhibition of Robert Stivers called Veiled Images at the Akron Art Muesuem (Akron Art Museum; 2012)”. A reviewer, Starr, comments “—we pass back and forth between historical periods; we are sometimes left between them, or in a zone freed of chronological placement all together.” (Starr: 2012)

“This search for context ultimately drives the whole show. It’s Stivers’ device for turning us in upon ourselves, because the only context that we’ll find is the one we create as we follow the numbered sequence of surprising images that leads us around the room.” (Starr, 2012)

Robert Stivers, Head in Mirror, 2002. Toned gelatin print, 20 x16 in. Gift of Noemi and Daniel Mattis, Akron Art Museum. Courtesy, Akron Art Museum

I like the idea of a story within the shadows. That context isn’t made immediately obvious, that there is a mystery to be uncovered. This was encouraging – maybe in this way I can present work that travels between histories, between realms, revealing hidden desires.

During the exhibition of my work in April, I received comments that they were ‘intimate’, that people were excited to be able to get up close to ‘history’, to see something usually reserved for musuems. There was a desire to view and examine.

“art tempts its audience with desires to come closer, to inhabit or to possess the art they see and admire.” (Starr, 2012)

Perhaps I could subvert this desire by preventing close examination, by hiding the beauty of these strange little ‘windows to heaven’, close it up with a veil, allowing only a peek – to tempt desire? Maybe.

According to Polish theologian and architect, Jerzy Uácinowicz, the revival of Christian icons began in the early 20th century, when old ones were ‘wiped clean of their historical dust’ to reveal a ‘feast of colours’:

“Once again it became the “window to eternity”,a glimpse into the other world. There was no “curtain” covering it any more. There was no black.” (Uácinowicz; 2010)

Not sure how that relates, but there it is. I’m not sure about this line of inquiry, although I have downloaded alot of fascinating literature on the veil. If I have time, I will revisit this.

2. GOD IN SPACE. In an expressionist splurge on photoshop I have designed a series of four large paintings of ‘Icons in Space.’ They are a ‘mash-up’ of worlds that I love. Loving the landscapes of Mars, Moon and Venus and other science fiction themes, ie the skies of deep space, and also the beauty of the byzantine figure. I will enjoy working on these, and hope to finish them by July. I’m not going to show you the designs online, you’ll have to visit me in my Christchurch studio if you want to see them… : )

REFERENCES (to be completed)

Lossky; 1944

“The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross”

Starr, 2012. Review of Veiled Images at the Akkron. Rretrieved from http://starr-review.blogspot.co.nz/2012/10/robert-stivers-veiled-images-at-akron.html

Uácinowicz, Jerzy; 2010. NEW LIFE OE ICONS IN ARCHITECTURE: APPLICATIONS VERSUS SYNTHESIS. Faculty of Architecture of Biatystok University of Technology: Bialystok, Poland.

The Assumption of the Golden Record

G. Barnes, (2013) ChristCrack: Angel in Time. Unfinished
G. Barnes, (2013) ChristCrack: Angel in Time. [Unfinished]
In my artwork I have been layering materials, seeing into cracks, peeling back surfaces, exposing origin layers of ‘chaos’ beneath the paint – perhaps trying to get to the bottom of something ‘hidden'(?). And then conversely I have also been painting traditional sacred medieval icons, where the revelation of God is open, ‘present,’ revealed – where there are no ‘shadows,’ where heaven is directly engaged, where the large eyes of saints and prophets and saviours stare boldly, directly, unashamedly into our own broken souls. A sacred icon painter once referred to his practice as ‘wrestling with icons’ – and I can understand why. They force the ‘painter of God’ to examine deeply his own relationship with the divine realm.

IMG_1508
G. Barnes, (2013). “Origin Orante – She Whose Womb contains Him Whom even the Heavens cannot Contain.”

An artist who has consciously decided to ‘Paint God’ is forced to ask at every step ~ can it be done?

I wonder if it is inbetween these places of light and dark, in the boundaries between the ‘hidden/shadow’ and the ‘revelation/present’ that is the most interesting place to seek and work. This place, between the darkness and the light, is full of richness ~ tis neither one nor the other. I can swing on the fringes of God’s robe and explore! In this place I can see God in Everything, and love the ritual and mystery of the Church, but I can also look and see God Nowhere – I can even say that forbidden word – Atheist – and honestly ask that question – does God exist? A real problem, because the tiny kernel of faith I possess is always, immediately, and simultaneously confronted with a mammoth terror – the scientific statistical possibility of our aloneness on earth. Our little blue planet, in an eternal galactic dark. I wonder where is God hiding in all this? I think it’s a great place to start ~ with terror ~ the Terror of Aloneness. The terror is real and faith reflected in that dark, is somehow more colourful, with multi-dimensional possibilities.

This video, a slightly mediated compilation of found footage primarily from NASA, is my response to the pathos of the human condition: The deep loneliness we all share, alone here on this Earth. We send our greetings out to the aliens in space, in every language, reaching out in a vain, almost comedic hope of NOT being alone. We share our music, images, codes, formulas, science. This probe has been travelling for over 40 years, it is only just leaving the solar system, about to enter interstellar space. This is the farthest physical reach into space of all known humanity. Two bits of space junk. It is a bit sad, slightly pathetic. But actually if we were to accept this ‘aloneness’ of humanity as a uniting force, as husbands of the Earth and all her creatures – then I feel that maybe we would appreciate how important is is for us to ‘just get along’ a bit better perhaps? Take some responsibility.

G. Barnes, (2013) Origin Orante Alone: She Whose Womb contains Him Whom even the Heavens cannot Contain. [tempera and gold, unfinished]
G. Barnes, (2013) Origin Orante – Alone
Beyond that, the more we learn of our world, our cosmos and the creation – the bigger God gets. If God is truly ‘beyond all that exists’ as early Christian mystic, Dionysius the Areopagite would say, then He is truly immeasurable. Yet if God IS all that exists – then likewise – immeasurable. The question then for us artists is this: Where is God that He can be drawn?

“One must abandon all that is impure and even all that is pure. One must scale the most sublime heights of sanctity leaving behind you all the divine luminaries, all the heavenly sounds and words. It is only thus that one may penetrate to the darkness wherein He who is beyond all created things makes his dwelling” (Dionysius the Areopagite; sourced from Lossky; 1944, p. 27)

Yet it is the journey that is key. Our desire for assumption into the unknown. Our wish to travel between realms. This is the place we can dwell, and explore. The place artists inhabit ~ at least until revelation.

FURTHER READING

Lossky, Vladimir (1944). The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press: New York.