Sunday, July 7, 2019

St. Barbara rises from the rubble

I never cease to be surprised at what is unearthed from the debris of a house move. Much of it is probably best left buried, but St. Barbara brings back some happy memories. It’s one of several almost-forgotten linocuts carved in London during the second half of 1993. They were essentially preparatory studies for an Australia Council residency at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris from October - December of that year. The resulting body of prints, drawings and paintings cast a secular eye on the frequently grisly lives of female saints in Medieval and early Renaissance art.

St. Barbara, a virgin martyr of the early church, is invoked in thunderstorms. She is the Patron Saint of artillerymen, firemen, miners and prisoners, among others. According to a legend originating in the 7th century, St. Barbara’s untimely death occurred circa 200 CE. Apropos of nothing in particular, her feast day, December 4, falls on my birthday.

Barbara was the beautiful daughter of a pagan, Dioscorus, who kept her guarded in a tower. When she converted to Christianity and refused a marriage proposal, her enraged parent marched Barbara to the provincial prefect, who decreed she be tortured and beheaded. The execution was performed by her father. In a well-justified smiting, he was struck by lightning and reduced to ashes as he made his way home.

St. Barbara’s authenticity is, at best, questionable. She was removed from the General Roman Calendar in the 1969 revision, although she remains on the Catholic Church's list of saints. Her most familiar attribute is a three-windowed tower. Other symbols are a palm, a chalice, lightning and a crown of martyrdom.

The tragic tale of St. Barbara, which prefigures the literary archetype of the girl in the tower, still resonates today.

The initial point of departure for my Female Saints series was the extensive collection of early Renaissance art in the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery. Christian Waller’s relief prints, in particular The Great Breath1932, pictured below, may have been another influence on St. Barbara. Waller has long been part of my personal Printmaking Pantheon, although in those far off days I wasn’t quite so well acquainted with her work and don’t recall directly referencing it. 

Installation view of Christian Waller's The Great Breath in Daughters of the Sun, Bendigo Art Gallery, February 2019 

A recent exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery, Daughters of the Sun (10 November 2018 - 10 February 2019) focused in considerable depth on the lives and works of Christian Waller and her equally celebrated niece, ceramic artist, Klytie Pate.

Several years ago, in a second-hand bookshop in Aireys Inlet, of all places, I discovered a vintage National and Tate Galleries catalogue, dating, at a guess, from the 1920s. The book has since become a treasured possession.

Its previous owner was another artist who I like to think was drawn to some of the same works that had such a lasting impact on my own imagery. Her name is on the fly-leaf: Christian Waller.