Christa paintings commentary

In July 2015, I was privileged to participate in an exhibition with fellow feminist artists at the Link Gallery, University of Winchester.

Here is the piece I wrote for the catalogue on these works:

Tikkun olam, repairing the broken world, and L’chayyim – To Life! I want to squeeze every drop of joyfulness and hope from the beautiful world around me. Painting for me is like prayer. In the studio or strolling in nature, I enter timeless space suspended between heaven and earth where seemingly common place things call out for recognition, resonating something beyond themselves.

When I began painting, there was a revival of the narrative and figurative in art. The naivety and integrity of this style appeals to me. In traditional cultures, art and religion are interwoven. The artist and the artisan are not distinguished. Based on the traditional methods of the Old ‘Masters’, I work in layers, from the initial drawing to the final transparent glazes.  Bible stories, icons and the early Italian ‘primitives’ provide inspiration and models. I want to embrace the tradition in all its specificity and conservatism and re-make it in the image of our own time. What I look for in painting is the intensification of a multitude of experiences into a single image. This synthesising and repetition enables me to connect and make meaning - reaching in to my depths to reach out to unseen others and Otherness. From my point of view, a painter is a philosopher whose eyes and hands do the thinking.

For this exhibition, we feminist artists were asked to absorb the concept of the female Christ, the Christa.  As Christa, the Risen One has transcended historical and physical reality of Jesus: male, Jewish, first century, Palestinian. But we know that incarnation means ‘the Word became Flesh’, the universal became particular and specific. For feminists, the maleness of Jesus is a problem. To transcend the historical Jesus means overcoming His maleness but it also means abandoning his Jewishness. Is something fertile and important lost to Christianity when it relinquishes Jewishness? I think so. So while the Risen One goes beyond human specificity on the one hand, the genius of the Biblical creation stories and the gospels, teach us that the Eternal is embodied in the world, in the historical, in the Here and Now, in the flesh, in the body, through Nature.  I do not want to lose the historical Jesus on my search for Christa. In these paintings, I have tried to find Her in Him with recourse to what they share – the unifying Presence of the One who dwells in the breast and in the womb of our being. I have tried to do this with reference to the tradition - biblical and artistic.

The gospels are so beautiful and evoke time and again stories from the Hebrew Bible. I have used these stories and Jewish concepts in these paintings, in particular, the name of G-d: El Shaddai. This is usually translated as G-d Almighty but the literal translation of Shaddai is My Breasts. The Eternal One as My Breasts reverses the triumphant Christianity of the Emperor Constantine, in whose era developed a portrayal of Christ made in the image of the almighty Caesar, Christ Pantocrater (Gk. pantos – all; cratos – might) – male, imperial, powerful, the over-lord.

In each of the paintings, the Hebrew letters for Shaddai - י ש ד, (read right to left) are repeated motifs. The Hebrew letter Yod - י   is suspended mid-air and is the humblest Hebrew letter but doubled יי, it is used as an abbreviation of the holiest of all of the names of G-d, YHWH, The Name (Ha-shem), too holy to be uttered. It is also related to the word yad which means hand. I particularly like the way the three Hebrew letters of Shaddai move from the visually complex shin to the simple yod, ‘the little that holds much’. I have set the Hebrew letters both on the tallit (prayer shawl) and falling away from it. The tallit reminds me of angel wings and its flowing looseness, waterfalls of light (Psalm 104: ‘… donning light as a garment… stretching out the heavens like a curtain… who walks on wings of wind…’). I have omitted the four tzitzit (knotted tassels at the four corners of the prayer shawl) to universalise the image.

These associations express how I feel about the potential for Jesus as Christa to traverse traditions and transcend the specificity of Christianity yet hold fast to its stories and Jewish roots.

In each of the paintings, the word Shaddai plays a role:

Shaddai-INRI [Latin acronym INRI, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews] - Jesus betrayed, mocked, dice thrown for his garment. I have used the image of a female bullfighter to re-think how Jesus is put at the centre of a barbarous spectacle.

Shaddai-Rechem – the Presence of G-d dwells in us like a pregnancy waiting for birth and rebirth. It is as elusive as a piece of paper caught on barbed wire. The Hebrew word for compassion is rachamim (Arabic, rachman). It is derived from rechem, womb. Al-Rachman, G-d the Compassionate - the Eternal One again, imaged in profoundly female terms.

Shaddai-Bones – Jesus with his crown of barbed wire passes through transition. He leaves his bones and holy bread on earth and becomes the Rising Christa, not Pantocrater but with us in our hearth. (Psalm 51: ‘…may the bones that you have crushed, rejoice.’).

Shaddai-Hinenni [Hebrew – ‘Here I am!’] In the Hebrew Bible, we read how, in moments of challenge and decision, our Biblical ancestors respond to G-d’s call with the cry ‘Hinenni!’ Here I am! Take me! Choose me! The women look for the body of Jesus but find an empty tomb. Where is the Risen Lord? What has he become, unshackled by flesh? For me, Christa is a Sufi dervish whirling in new freedom, waiting to be found… anywhere.