Icons & Talismans
"Casaranello Cupola," a painted piece of plaster, is a small piece of something much larger: the splendiferous 5th Century Byzantine dome I saw in an out-of-the-way chapel in Puglia. The vibrant blue and gold 'cup' makes a fine dancing partner to the white computer icon, "Rogers and Out."
Both the dome and the laptop screen are imprints of pieces of the world into which humans have cast their eyes and imagination and invitations for viewers to do the same.
The installation at Galatea Fine Arts in Boston's SOWA District happened in February 2020, the month preceding the world-wide Covid lockdown. By March we all had gone home to quarantine, pray, make friends with our inner selves, and reevaluate the importance of our connection to each other and our planet.
Inspiration came from the many summers I spent in the heel of the Italian boot. There, during the hot months, I travelled around, following the long-gone footsteps of Byzantine artists of the 5-8th Centuries. I found small chapels, Crusader hideaways, and underground sanctuaries filled with luscious, seldom seen frescos.
A 'dreamed tree' representation of the huge 700 square-foot Tree of Life mosaic on the floor of Otranto Cathedral sets the scene in the gallery.
The Tree of Life represents more than you want to read about right now!. What struck me each time I saw the mosaic in Otranto was the visual meeting of bits and pieces of East and West, of Greek myth, Christianity, astrology and Islam; I ushered in that feeling here.
Talismans are meant to be touched. For that reason, I painted hands and hearts to bestow and receive blessings.
(L to R>) #13 is Saint Lucy, patron of the blind, salesmen and writers. #14 blesses Mothers and Children. #15 is St. Mary the Virgin, guardian of all good things.
The undulated surface of the Talismans are plaster casts of bellies and chests: gut feelings and heart love.
(top row L to R>) #7 is the face of St. Mary the Virgin; #8 and #9 are Sister Guardian Angels from Galatina.
(bottom row L to R>) #10 is Saint Barbara; #11 is Santa Clara, a patron to goldsmiths and television; #12 is Santa Catarina, princess and scholar, patron to students, unmarried girls, apologists, archivists, nurses and knife sharpeners.
The installation transports a viewer from ‘there’ to ‘here,' to an era between antiquity and the Renaissance, when people looked at and prayed to religious paintings seeking messages and information, often about how to put life on the right track.
The saint monotypes use the Byzantine palette that I found in Magna Graecia; at times I softened the color values, as I did for "Probably Saint Bernard."
Much of the fresco work I found was damaged. Southern Italy, not as prosperous as the North, receives less state support for maintenance of antiquities.
“Pranayama Madonna” was highly influenced by my Yoga practice. Lines of breath follow the inhale and exhale, uniting the Mother with the Child, the teacher with the student, the separation and reunion of spirit and soul, and of the difference between red lights and white lights that mark the entry and departure of life through the nostrils.
The Byzantine Empire is the only major world power that ever experienced political mayhem resulting from arguments about art. Several bouts of iconoclasm and accompanying debates about religious images eventually established "the place of art in society and the relationship of art to words.”
I incorporated the linguistically complicated concept of 'icon writing' in realizing the monotypes, marking prints with prayers, subconscious thoughts, sayings.
"Internet Madonna" is packed with text: a mother’s worries about how much time her son is spending on the internet and her wish for him to stop. "Did he do his homework?” Words and image carry on a conversation with the viewer.
There’s an obvious Mediterranean cultural exchange going on here. Saint Barbara and the Madonnas wear nose rings and decorate the center of their foreheads with bindi, colored dots, which are still typical adornment today in Hindu culture.
Images of Saint Barbara, a virgin martyr born in the 3rd Century, appear everywhere in southern Puglia; she must have made many successful intercessions! People prayed to her because they believed she protected them against noxious animals, thunder and lightning, jaundice, and sudden death.
Her elaborate earrings and jewelry indicate she came from a rich family.
The frescos I found in Puglia, and the monotypes I made, are flat, linear and stable; seen in candlelight, they flicker, move and mesmerize.
I hope the fragments of the beauty presented in ICONS & TALISMANS comes through to you, the viewer--who is probably looking at these images on a computer!
My wish is that the images can be a launching point for contemplation and feelings about faith, fear, connection, breath, children, motherhood, safety and protection, time, technology, imagination, travel, words and art.
Here I am next to a13th Century fresco that inspired my work for Icons & Talismans exhibition in Boston. The fresco is located in an underground crypt/chapel used by Crusaders centuries ago. The entry to the carved-out-of-rock chapel is located in a field that's on the side of a rural road. The exposed outside building, where you enter, looks like a farmer’s storage shed. The devotional space is accessible through a barrel-vaulted staircase.
Once you’ve made your way down the steep steps, you can't help but to admire the low ceiling. It's covered with paintings of Crusaders’ shields–alternating the patterns of the black cross symbol of the Teutonic Knights and the red cross symbol of the Templars. Also painted on the ceilings are stars, plants, and real and imaginary animals, such as a Gryphon and a large Hydra from Greek mythology.
There are four areas of frescos. Some are more damaged by moisture and time than others. Visits to the Cripta are by reservation, which isn’t that difficult but speaking Italian helps. Contact the Ugento Archeological Museum a day before you would like to see the wall paintings.
(Records indicate human presence in the surrounding area from at least the fourth century B.C. Cripta del Crocefisso is located on the Via Sallentina, a route of the Messapian and Roman ages that connected Otranto to Taranto.)
Another underground Byzantine crypt in Salento that contributed to my research is located in the ceramicist town of Grottaglie. Mimmo Vestita discovered the treasure under his property while remodeling his garage. In order to see these remarkably intact wall paintings, you call Mimmo. I believe he shows the discovery to visitors June through August.
For the past handful of years, I have been tracking down Byzantine frescoes and Crusader hideaways in the Salento region of Italy, with the intention of making monotypes inspired by the imagery and the journey. The Saint Barbara (who appears everywhere in Puglia) in the marvelous Church of Santa Maria della Croce is perhaps my favorite. Her bindi, extravagant jewelry, nose ring and countenance are simply gorgeous to behold.
The delightful cats on the ceiling of Cripta del Crocefisso in Ugento are godparents to this pair of cat sculptures. Using the Byzantine colors and cartapesta technique from Puglia, I created "Moshe and Maria" for the Icons & Talismans exhibition. They now live in my house.